This month, California became the first state to require Covid-19 vaccines for all schoolchildren, but the provision had a loophole: Students will be granted religious exemptions.
California, which currently has the lowest coronavirus case rate in the United States, has issued a series of sweeping warrants, demanding that healthcare workers, state employees, caregivers and school staff get vaccinated. But in either case, Californians can ask for personal belief exemptions – and they are doing so en masse.
Epidemiologists fear the loophole will embolden the vaccine reluctant to evade demands and undermine the state’s progress against the pandemic. And lawyers and legal experts are bracing for a deluge of complaints about the blurred lines that define “genuine” objections to the vaccine.
Many parents and even some teachers have opposed the warrants, with walkouts and protests already taking place statewide. In rural northern California and conservative southern areas, parents protested against the public health measures on Monday, insisting they would not “co-parent with the government.” Last week, teachers in a Los Angeles school district who were denied religious exemptions protested outside headquarters.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles firefighters have responded to more than 450 requests for exemptions, while a quarter of Beverly Hills firefighters have requested exemptions. In San Francisco, some 800 city employees – including police and firefighters – have requested waivers, although the city has yet to approve a single request.
As state and city officials increasingly enforce strict mandates, a cottage industry of anti-vaccine and religious groups has grown to help people dodge the demands. In Rocklin, California – just northeast of the state capital, Sacramento – a mega-church pastor has offered religious exemption letters to anyone who wants them. Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Christian Church, who has organized protests in the state capital against state requirements for vaccines for schoolchildren, healthcare workers and first responders, said that it was not anti-vaccine, but “the vaccine poses a morally compromising situation. for many people of faith ”. Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel offers letter templates to also claim a religious exemption.
“Even when you have a few people who are unwilling or reluctant to take the vaccine, in big cities like San Francisco, it can have huge public health implications,” said Lorena Garcia, associate professor of epidemiology at the UC Davis School of Medicine. A vaccine-exempt bus driver, police officer, or teacher is not only at risk of catching the coronavirus, but also passing it on to one of the hundreds of other people they interact with – especially immunocompromised people who are more at risk of catching the virus even if they are vaccinated.
Because laws protecting religious or philosophical objections provide ample leeway for those seeking waivers, amid widespread misinformation about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccine, Garcia said she was concerned about the number people who would exploit the exemptions. In the end, she said, it might not matter that not only public health officials but also major religious leaders encouraged people to get vaccinated. Indeed, Pope Francis, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Jewish rabbis and Islamic leaders of the Fiqh Council of North America have all touted the vaccine.
Leaders of fringe religious groups have helped fuel and spread anti-vaccine fervor on social media – and amplify the proven strategy of invoking personal beliefs and First Amendment freedom of religion and speech to circumvent the public health policies.
Federal and state laws provide protections for workers who wish to refuse a vaccine because of their religious or philosophical beliefs, which can be broadly defined. Beliefs based on the teachings of an organized religion are protected, but so are other “sincere” beliefs or observances that are important to an individual, said Dorit Reiss, professor of law at UC Hastings. All an employer can do to challenge claims for exemption is to verify the consistency of employees’ beliefs – whether they oppose the vaccine because they oppose the use of fetal cells in research, do they also refuse to take Tylenol, Tums and other drugs developed with the help of fetal cells? But the tactic is “riddled with legal pitfalls,” Reiss said. Ultimately, a sincere belief may not need to be rational or consistent to be protected by law.
These laws are strong because they “were created to protect people from real discrimination, in situations where, for example, a Jewish employee might be forced to work on a Saturday, or a Sikh employee is asked to remove their turban.” , said Reiss. But they weren’t designed for situations where an employee’s belief system puts the lives of others at risk, she said.
Workplaces and agencies that do not wish to grant exemptions are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees who do not want the vaccine – which could include unpaid leave, reassignment, or allowances to work at. home, explained Reiss. But employees can challenge and challenge such moves with legal action.
And while anti-vaccine websites and forums have openly admitted for years to lying about their religion to gain exemptions, as Reiss found in a 2014 survey of these sites, “the pandemic has increased the burden. scale ”at which the tactic is used. Meanwhile, employees with disabilities – including those who are immunocompromised – are limited in what they can do to fend off coworkers demanding exemptions.
Hanna Sweiss, a partner at law firm Fischer Phillips, has said in recent weeks that she and her colleagues have been inundated with questions from employers in healthcare, hospitality and other industries about how to comply with vaccine requirements – including upcoming federal mandates for workplaces – while responding to exemption requests. “It’s been coming up a lot lately, and we are getting questions about requests for religious accommodations with regard to vaccines, but also Covid testing,” she said.
As such demands flood state agencies and school administrations, public health experts and parents have called on lawmakers to tighten exemption rules, as they did in 2015 when they passed. a law. eliminate the personal belief exemption for childhood vaccinations. But this law does not apply to vaccination requirements issued without a vote of the legislature. Richard Pan, the pediatrician and state legislator who drafted the 2015 bill, said he would consider closing the loophole if cases increased again.