Religious exemption requests from COVID vaccines are up, but sincerity of beliefs questioned

BOSTON — Many deadlines are coming due when it comes to requiring workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine or face termination.

This has put a real focus on religious exemptions, which along with a medical exemption or quitting, are the options open to workers who don’t want to get the shot.

“We’ve been swamped with requests for help,” said Andrew Beckwith, a North Shore attorney who specializes in defending religious liberty.

“People are intimidated. They’re risking losing their job. They’re being told to go get the vaccine or get an exemption,” added Beckwith.

Many employers like Google, CVS, Amtrack, United Airlines, State Street, and TJX have all announced some form of a vaccine mandate for their workers.

Governor Charlie Baker instituted a requirement for all employees of the executive branch.

Beckwith believes there’s a lot of confusion about how a religious exemption works. “Employers are supposed to be looking at whether someone’s belief is sincere, and religiously based. So, is it sincere? Are they acting consistent with that belief? And is it a religious belief and not a medical dispute about the efficacy of the vaccine or something like that?”

Boston 25 News found many people have mixed feelings about allowing a religious exemption to the COVID vaccine.

One woman told us, “You’ve got to respect their position,” and then added, “I think they’re also using it as a mechanism for sure, to avoid the vaccine.”

A man said, “I think part of the population has a deep belief not to be vaccinated, and I think some part of the population is using it as an excuse.”

“I think it’s wrong for people to use religion as a reason not to get vaccinated,” added another young woman.

Supporters of the mandates point out that major religious organizations, as well as Pope Francis, have come out strongly in favor of the vaccines.

“It is very hard to believe that it is coming from a sincerely held religious belief,” said Cindy Rowe, Executive Director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Reform. “You have to ask yourself, are you more Catholic than the Pope? Are you more religious than your own rabbi? Your reverend? Your imam? All of these people are telling you, begging you, to get the vaccine.”

The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action is a Boston-based non-profit that, among other things, supports legislation to remove the religious exemption for vaccinating public school children.

Rowe is pleading with employers to really check out requests for religious exemptions to make sure they’re legitimate.

“Employers are entitled to enter into interactive dialogues with employees who apply for a religious exemption,” explained Rowe. “They can ask them about their beliefs, ask them whether they’ve taken other vaccines in their lives.”

Beckwith says employers don’t have the right to request any documentation from a faith leader when reviewing an application for an exemption.

He believes more focus should be on accommodations like masking and testing. “This is America. We tolerate a wide range of beliefs. And if someone says it’s a sincerely held religious belief that they can’t inject themselves with this vaccine, we should take them at face value.”

“There will be an infinitesimally small number of these that should be approved,” Lowe said. “Most people are hiding behind the religious exemption as a way to get out of taking the vaccine for other purposes.”

Many polls show support for vaccine mandates in the workplace.

For example, a Gallup poll last month found 60% of those asked support President Biden’s push to get federal employees vaccinated.

Still, a number of companies and governmental agencies are facing legal challenges to their policies.

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