Religious experts, leaders weigh in on vaccine exemptions

Posted at 1:35 PM, Oct 01, 2021

More Americans are looking to religious exemptions to avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine. But this influx of requests has been baffling some religious leaders.

“Recently, I’ve had a bunch of people ask me about religious exemptions,” said Muhammad Kolila, Imam at the Downtown Denver Islamic Center.

Kolila says he's seen an uptick in the number of people asking him questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is no such thing as an exemption from the vaccination,” he explained. “It’s encouraged because that's the best way to reach the people’s safety, and it’s part of our religion that we try as much as we can to protect our bodies and protect other people's bodies too.”

He said, specifically, the mRNA vaccine does not interfere with their beliefs.

“The only time the exemption happens is if the vaccine contains pork. That's the time we consider the vaccination is not permissible because we don't eat pork or include anything in our bodies related to pork. Another is alcohol,” he said.

Kolila is not alone.

“People have asked me to give them exemptions, and I can’t think of any religious basis to do so,” said Rabbi Joseph Black, the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel Denver.

He faces the same questions.

“Our top priority in every one of our Jewish values is an idea called 'pikuach nefesh,' which means 'preservation of life' and according to Jewish tradition, saving a life trumps any other commandment,” he said. “We require all the students in our early learning center to be vaccinated.”

Churches across the country have been clarifying their stance. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America announced in a statement: “...there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for Her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons.”

Other entities, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have released similar statements.

“What a religious exemption does is it allows a person on the basis of a religious belief to claim to be exempt from some general legal requirement,” said Leslie Francis, the Director of the University of Utah Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences.

She is a professor of law and philosophy.

“Part of what's worrying a lot of people in this discussion is, aren't we just gonna have a whole lot of people saying they have religious exemptions when maybe they don't,” she explained.

That’s exactly what legal expert Christopher Jackson has been seeing as more employers implement mandates.

“Religious exemptions are kind of a thing in employment and constitutional law, but they haven't come up all that much. I think that there has been an uptick in the last few weeks, especially after the president announced a new OSHA rule mandating vaccines for most employers. It really has come up a lot more frequently,” said Jackson, an appellate partner at Holland & Hart LLP.

He said the line isn’t clear.

“The religious belief has to be a sincerely held one. But there isn't a great case for an employer to dive into that, or try to figure out if somebody has a sincerely held religious belief.”

Jackson said he sees multiple ways this could go.

“I could see this opening a floodgate of lawsuits, of seeing federal courts getting involved, or it may be in a few weeks that this mostly dies down. That they kind of sorted out who really should be exempted and who shouldn't and maybe it goes away, and I don’t really think anyone has a clear idea yet which way this is going to go,” he said.

For now, churches will make decisions based on their core beliefs.

“The value of saving life, the value of preserving community, the value of supporting one another, is more important,” Rabbi Black said.