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No Organized Religions Object to Vaccines. Will ‘Religious Exemptions’ Carry Any Weight?

Some evangelical pastors are reportedly providing religious exemption documents to the members of their church, and right-wing forums are sharing strategies to skirt vaccination requirements. Religious freedom groups are sending threatening letters to states, schools and employers and preparing legal challenges to fight vaccination mandates.

Religious exemptions could prove to be the latest legal battlefield of the pandemic, as Americans opposed to the coronavirus vaccines try to find ways around employer and government vaccination mandates. Only some federal agencies and states have made vaccination mandatory for workers, and more private companies are doing or considering the same. But experts anticipate that religious liberty challenges will pick up as more mandates are put in place — especially when there is no national standard.

TAMPA, FL – JULY 27: Families protest any potential mask mandates before the Hillsborough County Schools Board meeting held at the district office on July 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended those who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors including students returning to school. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

The challenge for governments and institutions is balancing American civil liberties with a worsening public health crisis. Experts say that the threshold for religious exemptions could come down to proving whether the person attempting to obtain one has “sincerely held beliefs” against getting vaccinated on religious grounds. They may even have to show a track record of opposition to receive an exemption.

Those challenging employer-created mandates cite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees, while government-created mandates are being challenged under the First Amendment. Both, however, bring up the question of whether a person’s religious beliefs are sincere. “There are some First Amendment implications here and there’s a patchwork of laws that could potentially be implicated by these mandates,” said James Sonne, a law professor at Stanford Law School and founding director of its Religious Liberty Clinic. “It’s certainly something we’ll see getting worked out in the courts.”

The Christian argument for religious exemptions follows two tracks typically: first, that the vaccine shots at some point in their production used aborted fetal cell lines. The second argument cites a Bible verse that claims that the human body is God’s temple of the Holy Spirit and argues that for that reason receiving a vaccine would be a sin. Johnson & Johnson did use a replicated fetal cell line in the production of its vaccine, but Pfizer and Moderna did not. They did, however, use replicated fetal cell lines to test the effectiveness of their vaccines. Those cell lines, however, were isolated from two fetuses in 1973 and 1985 and then replicated numerous times over the ensuing decades. They are commonly used in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to test and create medications.

Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University Langone Medical Center, said that people who oppose the coronavirus on religious grounds should also oppose numerous medications and vaccines developed over the past 30 to 40 years. “There’s a lot more drugs, vaccines, and medicines you should not be taking and protesting if you’re really worried about these fetal cells being used,” Caplan said. “I don’t think most of this is sincere. I think it’s just a way to get out of having to take a vaccine.”



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