Viruses mutate for a living. They just keep producing new variants. So far we’ve had the original COVID (classic COVID?), the Delta Variant, and the Omicron Variant. Hospitals are overloaded again and there may be another serious variant sometime soon. The theory is that the problem goes away when enough people have had COVID and developed natural immunity, and enough other people are vaccinated that new variants don’t make people seriously ill, don’t transmit widely, and we get to "herd immunity".
The vaccination part of that process is hugely important. (Atheists have the highest vaccination rate in a survey of 'religious' groups.) And vaccine mandates and religious exemptions have become hugely controversial. Supreme Court controversial. President Biden issued an executive order that all federal employees should be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, as should all healthcare workers whose employers receive federal funds and all employees at large companies. The Supreme Court upheld the healthcare workers order, struck down the large company order, and a lower court suspended the all-federal-employees vaccine requirement.
Religious exemptions are available in all these executive orders for those with sincerely held beliefs. But the standard for a sincerely held religious belief is extremely low, as explained in great detail in this directive from the government’s employment office. A religious belief does not have to stem from an organized religion and can be new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” Surprisingly, “Belief in God or gods is not necessary; nontheistic beliefs can also be religious for purposes of the Title VII exemption as long as they ‘occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by . . . God’ in traditionally religious persons.” So the “Nones” are covered too!
Government agencies are now evaluating thousands of requests for religious exemptions and the sincerity of the beliefs involved. Into this human resources quicksand steps Congressman Ralph Norman (R-SC) with a bill, the Religious Freedom Over Mandates Act, that prevents any federal agency from keeping records about the religious exemption process. It says no federal funds can be used to “establish, operate, maintain, or support any system of records on religious accommodations requested by, or granted to, an employee, detailee, contractor, consultant, intern, applicant, volunteer, or any other person with respect to any COVID–19 vaccination requirement.” Congressman Norman says he actually wants to preclude the government from creating a “religious registry,” which could have been better accomplished with a differently worded bill.
Now first and foremost, according to public health professionals we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible and ultimately religious exemptions are a major obstacle to public health. Second, if there are to be offer religious exemptions they should not be anywhere near as flimsy as the federal government allows here. And third, if you’re evaluating requests for exemptions, you need to be able to keep at least some “system of records”, like keeping track of who is approved or not approved. And ideally a “Why.” Otherwise no one can find out what decisions have been made and the religious exemption becomes a joke and a means for anyone and everyone to avoid vaccination….or does it?
What if a government agency turned down absolutely everyone who asked for a religious exemption? Congressman Norman might want to know about this, and it’s exactly what has been happening at the Defense Department. Last month the first two religious exemptions were finally granted after hundreds were denied and there was some publicity. How would we know about this or any vaccine exemption data if there can be no “system of records?” Knowing who’s not vaccinated in the federal and healthcare workplace is too important to avoid keeping records about it.
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Director of Policy and Government Affairs
Secular Coalition for America