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Religious Exemptions To COVID-19 Vaccine May Be Easy To Claim, But Hard To Prove

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- As more employers require COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment, some employees have tried to claim a religious objection to the vaccine.

As KDKA money editor Jon Delano, who is also an attorney, explains, that's not as easy as it might seem.

There is no state law to keep employers from requiring vaccinations. If a medical doctor certifies a vaccine would compromise your health, under most circumstances that's enough for your boss. But a religious objection is much harder to make.

"People have heard that religion may be a way of getting out of getting a vaccine," said Christine Elzer, a Pittsburgh employment attorney.

Elzer said she's asked about religious exemptions frequently.

The quick answer is employers can require vaccinations, but, Elzer says, "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act both require employers to make reasonable accommodations to sincerely held religious beliefs if doing so would not cause an undue hardship."

"What does a firmly held belief mean? How can I know that you have one?" said Dr. John Grabenstein, a leading scholar on vaccines and religion.

He said none of the world's major religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism -- oppose vaccinations. In fact, it's just the opposite. Pope Francis calls vaccination an "act of love."

"They all take great pains to say, we are responsible for preserving health, for keeping the body healthy, and that's what vaccines do, of course," Grabenstein said.

Prof. Drew Smith, a Baptist minister at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said a religious objection to vaccines has no Scriptural basis.

"The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are quite clear in emphasizing the good of the other above the good of ourselves, emphasizing loving our neighbors as we love ourselves," Smith said.

"I just don't find a place within Scripture that would support the idea of individual freedoms trumping the common good," added Smith.

The experts say it's not enough to claim a religious belief when the objection is really something else.

"I know of multiple cases of people that are using religion as an excuse when they really have a safety worry or a political worry," Grabenstein said.

In 2017 and 2020, the Federal Court of Appeals had cases involving two Pennsylvania hospitals that fired workers who refused to get a flu vaccine. Both workers claimed a religious belief against vaccines, but the court found the workers' beliefs were not religious, but medical, because they were worried vaccines would hurt their bodies.

So can anyone make a religious claim?

"There have been some religious expressions that have been anti-modernist in a fairly consistent way. When we look at some of the peace churches, the Amish, the Mennonites. Some of those traditions have been anti-modernist in a lot of ways," Smith said.

But that's limited to a very few people, and some worry that the religious belief in others is not for real.

"I also see people using this clause as an out-to-game the system, and that's not right and not good for society," Grabenstein said.

Attorneys say if you're going to claim a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine, you better be consistent -- rejecting all other vaccines, too. And you need to have proof of long-standing moral beliefs against vaccination.

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