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COVID faith: Are your religious views ‘sincerely held’?

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Amid the endless debates over masks, vaccine mandates and boosters comes a particularly thorny COVID-19 question: How can we tell whether a request for a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine is sincerely held?

How would one even measure faithful intent as outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which held that employers must provide reasonable accommodation for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held”?

Unlike a disability accommodation, a request based on religion is hard to prove. And yet more and more people are invoking religious exemptions in the wake of President Biden’s pressure on companies and federal agencies to vaccinate employees.

The founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization, told the New York Times that his group had received more than 20,000 queries about religious exemptions in recent weeks. 

Jackson Lahmeyer, a pastor at Sheridan Church in Tulsa, is encouraging people to donate to his church so they can become an online member and get his signature on a religious exemption from COVID vaccine mandates. The pastor is also running in the Republican primary to challenge Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) in 2022. He says that in the past few days, some 30,000 people have downloaded the religious exemption form he created.

How many of these objections are solely about religion?

I can only speak for myself. I am Jewish. My individual Jewish views and values are, in my opinion, sincerely held. I am not sure that I could prove that in a court of law and hope never to have to. What I can prove is that I have been vaccinated against COVID both to minimize my chances of getting the disease and to protect others. That accords with both my religious beliefs and what I believe to be my role as a citizen of a wider community. 

It is important to have respect for people of all faiths as well as non-believers. We are taught to respect others and to celebrate difference in traditions, practices and observances.

But we shouldn’t respect attempts to use religious objections to vaccination based on misinterpretations of freedom of religion. Many invoke Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion (or lack of religious belief) in hiring, firing or any other terms and conditions of employment. Without context, that could sound like a good rationale for telling a boss or a college that you have religious grounds to reject the vaccine.

But, importantly, and in addition, the next paragraph of the statute “requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operation of the employer’s business.”

COVID-19 has placed a major burden on business owners and workers in terms of financial losses, undue hardships on existing staff and the spread of the virus among employees. Not getting a vaccine endangers others.

Another problem with the religious exemption is its randomness. Granted, a religious objection does not mean you have to belong to a given religion. But it is useful to take into consideration what religious leaders of your faith believe. Many prominent religious leaders have emphasized their full support for vaccines. For instance, Pope Francis described getting vaccinated as “an act of love.”  The Dalai Lama was vaccinated publicly and the list goes on.

Call me a skeptic. I question whether all these religious objections are based on religion rather than politics and whether some of the concerns emanate less from religious disagreement than from misinformation, conspiracy theories and a fundamental lack of faith in government and science. Regardless, there is a case to be made, on religious grounds, for doing everything possible to protect one another.

What makes this gray area of religion and science even more opaque is confused messaging from the government experts over issues like vaccine booster shots. There are legitimate areas of debate around the efficacy of a third shot, but it is not helpful when those debates spill over into public view and undermine the established science, which is that vaccines work. Confusion bolsters the argument by many that we don’t know enough about vaccines to demand that people take them, which is not true. Trust and faith are often intertwined.

Faith is immeasurable. Even the best data can’t reveal honesty, the depth of one’s belief or how “sincerely held” a person’s religious views are. What we need is a re-building of trust among people and a more unified approach to saving America from its worst instincts. I am sincerely praying for that. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine Freedom of religion James Lankford Joe Biden Pope Francis religious exemptions Vaccination Vaccination policy Vaccine Vaccine hesitancy

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