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A test for religious sincerity?

Employers are increasingly scrutinizing religious objections to vaccine mandates

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Facebook

A test for religious sincerity?

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.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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Excellent article regarding the legal issues in general as well as the specifics mentioned. This is despite the comments below, most of which do not pertain to your update. I'll add that I've never worked in a hospital that did not require annual influenza vaccines for all health care workers. Where I currently work they even give something to attach to our name badge (the color is different every year) that signifies that one has received the latest flu shot. I assume there was some framework for religious exemptions but never heard about them or encountered someone who was concerned. And it is clear that there are potentially severe and recognized adverse effects with a mechanism for federal remuneration if they happen. But this is sure a sticky wicket as they say. It would seem to me that a hospital could raise that issue. Such as looking back to see if someone refused the flu vaccine on religious grounds and what they were. I don't hear this aspect addressed. This doesn't address the aborted fetal tissue concerns.


“Please remember that this shot is not a vaccine in the usual sense of the word and in other instances, vaccines have been withdrawn when they are shown to cause serious side effects or death.”

The vaccines for Covid are vaccines in the usual sense, regardless of the timeline in their creation or emergency use given a pandemic that is the leading cause of death in the US. Yes, vaccines have been withdrawn for the reasons you note, but the Covid vaccines are safe and effective: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/safety-of-vaccines.html#:~:text=Over%20390%20million%20doses%20of,of%20participants%20in%20clinical%20trials.

“At this point only the patient is liable if serious side effects occur, so each person must weigh the risks and benefits of receiving the treatment.”

That is not entirely true, see: https://www.newsweek.com/fact-check-are-pharmaceutical-companies-immune-covid-19-vaccine-lawsuits-1562793

The benefits far outweigh the risks as one is 10-11times more likely to die from Covid if unvaccinated. This is a fact (benefit/risk) in which a majority of the medical community agree.

Of further note as to religious exemptions and fetal tissue:

“Do the COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells?
No, the COVID-19 vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells. However, Johnson & Johnson did use fetal cell lines — not fetal tissue — when developing and producing their vaccine, while Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines to test their vaccines and make sure that they work.

Fetal cell lines are grown in a laboratory and were started with cells from elective abortions that occurred several decades ago in the 1970s-80s. They are now thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. None of the COVID-19 vaccines use fetal cells derived from recent abortions.

We understand this is a sensitive issue, and specifically important to religious communities. We’d like to provide some additional context on this topic. On Jan. 27, the California Catholic Conference noted in an official statement that they support the use of all COVID-19 vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. Pope Francis also publicly supported COVID-19 vaccination and the Vatican has issued a statement saying it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

Also, the FDA has approved the Pfizer Covid vaccine, see: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-covid-19-vaccine


Interesting counterpoints, but none of them eliminate the broad legal right to claim a religious exemption, particularly where RFRA applies. As for the supposed FDA approval, see my comments below. I would recommend a careful reading of the actual FDA letter to Pfizer, rather than reliance upon their own press release.


I wasn't suggesting it eliminated such. My responses were to Booklady's assertions. And I frankly don't care about the FDA's approval when we are talking about a world-wide emergency that has killed millions of people. I was simply pointing out that one of the vaccine's had FDA approval, since several were asserting the opposite. I think there are many who would still be against the vaccines even if they were FDA approved, especially if they are citing a religious reason. However, not only the Pope but even someone like Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, doesn't believe there's a valid religious reason for exemptions. The fact those two would agree on this issue is significant. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2021/09/17/first-baptists-robert-jeffress-there-is-no-credible-religious-argument-against-the-vaccines/


I agree generally with the comments by Booklady. However, the only shots currently available are all still operating strictly through emergency use authorization. There is no FDA approved vaccine that is currently available. Otherwise, such an approved product would be the only option. The lack of FDA transparency on this issue (and the misleading headlines that followed) should be another consideration, as well as a reason why decisions should be left to each individual and not a requirement of any government, employer, church, business, or school.

Laura WDMLAW8714

Pfizer got full approval not too long ago, though it's still operating on an EUA for the youngest ages.

DMLAW8714Laura W

I realize that the headlines and press release from the FDA announced approval for Pfizer, but legally there cannot be both an approved biologic license, and multiple EUAs. The actual letter issued by the FDA can be found online. Two attorneys discussing the details of the letter and the legal issues can also be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiUFPDAlsLU

Laura WDMLAW8714

Well, I'd need a lot more than one video to throw out everyone else's reporting on this (including World, I think), so I guess I'll let this be.


Please remember that this shot is not a vaccine in the usual sense of the word and in other instances, vaccines have been withdrawn when they are shown to cause serious side effects or death. At this point only the patient is liable if serious side effects occur, so each person must weigh the risks and benefits of receiving the treatment. Certainly we can not put this shot, still in clinical study (though FDA approved), in with vaccines shown to have no long term side effects.

Laura WBooklady

What "usual sense of the word" are you referring to? (Can you cite a dictionary? A textbook?) Which type of shot are you referring to? (There are options from three different manufacturers currently available in the US.)

DMLAW8714Laura W

All 3 of the options are still only available based upon their emergency use authorization. Interesting that you raise the issue of vaccine definition, because the CDC has been busy making changes to the definition. The current CDC director recently stated that none of currently available shots "prevent transmission". That admission would be important under prior definitions, but not under the most recent revisions. For an outline of the changes, including links to CDC articles on vaccination & immunization, try this: https://sharylattkisson.com/2021/09/read-cdc-changes-definition-of-vaccines-to-fit-covid-19-vaccine-limitations/

Laura WDMLAW8714

Again, please cite any "prior definition" that makes that a requirement for something to be considered a vaccine. If what you mean is that these vaccines don't prevent transmission as well as most other vaccines do, then why don't you just say that? Because that is true and potentially relevant.


I don't trust your source for objective information on this subject. Your attempts to cast suspicion or doubt as to the vaccines is part of the reason people are hesitant to get vaccinated, which is a harm to themselves and others.


Even if your statements here were correct, (Please check your sources.) none of this constitutes a religious exception.