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Can you get a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine?

Smith's pharmacy technician Wendy Flores administers a COVID-19 vaccine during an event at a church in Salt Lake City on March 20. As some hospitals and other employers are requiring their employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, some conservative religious groups have pushed back, often claiming a religious exemption to the vaccine.

Smith's pharmacy technician Wendy Flores administers a COVID-19 vaccine during an event at a church in Salt Lake City on March 20. As some hospitals and other employers are requiring their employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, some conservative religious groups have pushed back, often claiming a religious exemption to the vaccine. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — As some hospitals and other employers are requiring employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, some conservative religious groups have pushed back, often claiming a religious exemption to the vaccine.

Religious leaders, like the pope, have encouraged individuals to be vaccinated out of a religious belief of love for others.

There is no specific foundational religious doctrine against vaccines in major U.S. religions, as KSL.com previously reported, but many churches allow their practitioners to choose for themselves.

In a video response to health care workers being required to be vaccinated, Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin, California, offered letters to his congregants who planned on claiming a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine. It did not cite any specific religious doctrine. Instead, he said that the church is not anti-vaccination, but it is "pro-freedom."

On the other hand, religious leaders like Rev. Serene Jones, president of the New York City-based Union Theological Seminary, and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy have released statements specifically against religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination.

"Let me be blunt: There is simply no religious justification to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine or encourage others to do so. Carving out religious exemptions for COVID-19 simply allows conservative Christians to use faith as an excuse to maintain and spread their dangerous beliefs," Rev. Jones said.

After the Colorado Catholic Conference prepared a form suggesting that there is a basis in Catholic social teaching that justifies a religious exemption to the vaccine, Bishop McElroy wrote a letter to priests in his diocese asking them to "caringly decline" any requests to sign the form.

"My greatest worry is that signing this declaration thrusts our priests into the impossible position of asserting that the Catholic Church's teachings may lead individual Catholics … to decline certain vaccines when those priests recognize that Catholic teaching proclaims just the opposite," he wrote.

So what exactly are the requirements for religious exemptions, especially in Utah? Would religious beliefs against vaccination, based on personal revelation outside of the official doctrine, qualify for a religious exemption? If so, would that claim stand up in court?

Religious exemptions on a state level

Utah does not have a specific definition of what constitutes a religious exemption, only that it has to be a belief that is both sincere and religious.

"I can sincerely believe that I can walk across the road. Sincerity alone doesn't make it a religious belief. Whatever else a religious exemption is designed to protect, it's not designed to protect insincere beliefs," said W. Cole Durham, a professor at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies. It also has to be a religious issue, not just apprehension about the vaccine.

"What is going on in the vaccine situation is that people may have different kinds of fears about the vaccines or different kinds of information, but that doesn't necessarily qualify something as a religious belief," Durham said.

And even beliefs that meet both criteria don't automatically get a pass. For instance, he continued, if a modern-day Abraham were to sacrifice a modern-day Isaac in the middle of Salt Lake City, he would still face criminal charges, even if he claims God told him to do it. "A sincere religious belief does not automatically immunize you from the force of the law," Durham continued.

At a state level, he said, there needs to be a compelling reason for overriding sincere religious beliefs that cannot reasonably be achieved another way. In the previous example, that would be preservation of life. In the case of COVID-19 vaccinations, the interest in public health and protecting people from possible illness, hospitalization and death might be strong enough to override a religious exemption.

"You don't automatically win," Durham said.

Conscientious objection

Last week, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote a letter to "urge" members to wear masks and be vaccinated. Some church members have indicated on social media that they feel the word "urge" allows for personal revelation on the matter. They say they have refused the vaccine based on personal religious belief or personal revelation.

When personal religious beliefs lead to a different stance than that of a traditional faith, it is possible to claim what's called "conscientious objection," Durham said, but he added that is "rare and hard to establish."

Regarding the current situation with Latter-day Saint members and personal revelation on vaccination, he said, going against what the church's prophet urges without any scriptures or doctrine to back you up could legally make it much harder to prove that you are a sincere believer, but it could be considered a conscientious objection.

"If there's every evidence of sincerity and a religious link, the person could make a conscientious claim. I'm still not sure it would automatically win when what you're doing is putting not only yourself at risk, but especially with delta, you're putting other people at risk as well," he said.

Employment and religious exemptions

Employers have more flexibility when determining qualification for religious exemptions. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to accommodate employees' sincerely held religious beliefs unless it would cause "undue hardship" on "de minimis" or small level for the business.

Having unvaccinated people coming to work could cause an outbreak at the office. That outbreak could potentially mean less work is done with employees on sick leave, opening a company up to lawsuits, bringing COVID-19 home to employees' families and a number of other issues, Durham said.

"A good employer will try to accommodate religious beliefs, but they are not required to if the risk is too high," he said.

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