A test for religious sincerity?
Employers are increasingly scrutinizing religious objections to vaccine mandates
In the wake of a growing wave of requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, some employers are questioning the sincerity and basis of their employees’ beliefs.
Last week, a Roman Catholic doctor and a Buddhist student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the school’s policy for religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine. The policy limits such exemptions to employees who belong to religions whose teachings are opposed to all immunizations.
The two challengers—both suing under pseudonyms for fear of reprisal—have different religious objections to the three U.S. COVID-19 vaccines. The Catholic physician objects because she believes receiving a vaccine that relies on fetal cell strains derived from aborted fetal tissue, or one tested with such cells, would violate her deeply held religious beliefs that abortion is a grave sin. The other is a first-year medical student who believes that under the “five precepts” of Buddhism he must avoid products associated with the harming of animals or humans—including aborted children.
According to the complaint, the medical school’s policies violate the religious freedom and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution by minimizing personal religious beliefs. School authorities questioned the challenging physician over whether she had taken other vaccines and, if so, why she did not object to them. They also questioned the student challenger’s sincerity and told him, “the Dharma Realm Buddhist University set up by Dharma Master Xuan Hua who you list in your letter is in fact requiring vaccinations for all of its students, faculty, and staff.”
Linking a personal religious belief to an organized religion’s stated beliefs could be problematic, said Thomas Berg, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Berg noted courts have regarded the relevant religious belief in such cases as that of the individual, not the group to which he or she belongs.
Yet Berg cautioned that the school may have legal grounds for limiting religious exemptions to those who object to all vaccines, not just the COVID-19 vaccines. “During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court allowed the government to limit draft exemptions to persons opposed to all wars, on the ground that moral objections to a particular war were too hard to distinguish from policy or political objections, a concern that arguably applies here too,” he said.
Berg said employers are grappling with the unusually high number of religious objections—many of which might not be sincere—due to the prevalence of boilerplate objection forms available online. “If they can’t filter insincere claims, that will strengthen the impulse to refuse all religious exemptions,” he said. Despite court challenges, the situation may ultimately lead judges to narrow the scope of allowable religious exemptions.
That concern may have surfaced in a recent case in which some Pennsylvania parents challenged a school mask mandate. After reviewing the parents’ objections, a federal judge ruled that none of the four parents, whose children attend a school district outside of Philadelphia, demonstrated a “sincere religious belief” because none of their beliefs appeared to be part of a “comprehensive belief system.”
Whether or not the judge made the right call, the problem of sincere vs. insincere religious objections is one employers and courts will wrestle with in the months ahead. As Berg concludes, the real losers in such a struggle may be those who truly have a sincere religious objection to a vaccine.
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