COVID vaccine mandates test the limits of religious exemptions

Christina Moniodis
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
People participate in a rally and march against COVID-19 mandates on Monday, September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)

In extending a temporary restraining order on mandating COVID-19 vaccines for New York health care workers who raised religious exemptions, a judge made clear that the court did not determine that the health care workers qualify for a religious exemption. Rather, the court found, the workers have a federally protected right to seek such an exemption.

Alas, we are early in the journey of vaccine-mandate litigation. But as the courts splinter over various vaccine mandate issues, religious exemptions may be more than a legal development. Their dynamics are part of a broader, albeit complex, pandemic-era religious awakening.

Isolation can inspire a sense of spirituality, which is the very reason many highly religious people seek hermitages. Naturally then, an extended quarantine, especially one with the risk of death looming, could foster spirituality. However, surges in suicide, mental health crises and obesity during the pandemic suggest the spiritual effect was largely negative. In fact, 2020 Gallup data show that U.S. membership in houses of worship fell below the majority for the first time. This trend will likely continue as 66% of U.S. adults born before 1946 belong to a church, compared with 36% of millennials.

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Nonetheless, COVID did manage to spur passionate religious-related discussion. As an example, can communion be a vector for disease or is it incorruptible? Can large gatherings in mosques, churches or temples cause community spread, or is it safe, holy ground? Religious institutions themselves took varying stances on these questions, but regardless of stance, theological issues once thought confined to antiquity made their way into 2020 public thought.

The COVID vaccine mandate is the latest conjuring of religion from its borderline extinct mainstream existence. With few exemptions from the vaccine mandate available, which are largely limited to medical and religious grounds (and sometimes limited to medical only), religious beliefs have been thrust to the forefront.

Religious exemptions are not well defined, in contrast to medical exemptions — which are clear as to what falls within their very restrictive scope. Religious exemption ambiguity is understandable, given that religious faiths themselves vary widely and ascertaining a sincerely held belief is tricky business. The religious exemption has also been a hot topic of debate due to debacles such as New York first including a religious exemption for health care workers and then eliminating it eight days later, raising concerns of religious gerrymandering.

While some faiths are against medical intervention altogether, major faiths are not. The religious issue being litigated is the COVID vaccines’ connection to cell lines from fetuses aborted decades ago (however remote). The distinction is this: being an advocate of medical intervention generally, but being against the involvement of religiously objectionable means.

This particular religious awakening is unusual in that it is confronted by individuals, rather than religious institutions themselves. Most places of worship and the leadership within are neither requesting exemptions as employers, nor providing support to individuals for exemptions. This is a battle that individuals are fighting alone or with their unions. This is a large undertaking for a society that is far from being high on theology, but is rather one of defection from houses of worship.

As religious individuals go-it-alone, the religious exemption debate will refocus attention on the realm of deeply held, transcendent beliefs beyond our everyday routines. Religious leadership may have inadvertently democratized theology.

Regardless of one’s vaccine views, the COVID vaccine mandate battle will set a larger precedent for religion in America — legal and beyond.

— Christina Moniodis is an attorney and business executive.