Can Nurses Claim Religious Exemption To COVID Vaccines?

4 Min Read Published October 7, 2021
Can Nurses Claim Religious Exemption To COVID Vaccines?

Religious exemptions are not new. Long before the development of the COVID vaccine, many healthcare workers would ask for religious exemptions to the annual flu vaccine, TDaP vaccine, as well as other mandatory vaccinations. However, since the implementation (and requirement) of the COVID vaccine at healthcare facilities around the country, the number of individuals applying for religious exemptions has skyrocketed. 

The reality is - the increase in requests for a religious exemption to the COVID vaccine is also rising in schools, universities, and other places of employment. Currently, there is no federal or state law regarding religious exemptions to any vaccination. It is at the discretion of each individual healthcare institution if any employees are awarded a religious exemption. 

History of Religious Exemptions

In the early 19th century, states began to institute the first vaccine mandates to help stop the spread of smallpox. As a result, the first compulsory vaccination law was enacted.  

Additionally, the right to request a religious exemption allows stems from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination on the basis of religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for workers who have sincerely held religious beliefs. It also allows employers to question the sincerity of an individual’s religious beliefs. 

Religious Leaders Support the COVID Vaccine 

Even before President Joe Biden announced that companies with more than 100 employees must mandate their workers be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, major religious leaders around the world openly supported and encouraged the COVID vaccine. 

Currently, the Dutch Reformed Church and Church of Christ, Scientist are the only two major religions that have not openly supported vaccination, including the COVID vaccine. Individuals of the Dutch Reformed Church decline vaccines because it interferes with divine providence and the Church of Christ, Scientist, teaches that prayer will alleviate and prevent disease; however, neither discourage vaccination. 

Pope Francis has publicly urged Catholics, as well as all citizens, to get vaccinated. He calls it “an act of love” and added that the vaccine would “bring hope to end the pandemic, but only if they are available to all and if we collaborate with one another.”

Other major Catholic leaders have embraced the vaccine and advocated for their members to become fully vaccinated. 

Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, and Salvadorian Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez have ALL supported the approved vaccines and believe the decision to not get vaccinated affects others and it is our moral responsibility. 

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Orthodox Union have all released multiple statements supporting vaccination.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America stated that while some people may have medical reasons for not receiving the vaccine, “there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for Her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons, including the coronavirus vaccine. For this reason, letters of exemption for the vaccination against the coronavirus for religious purposes issued by priests of the Archdiocese of America have no validity, and furthermore, no clergy are to issue such religious exemption letters for any reason.”

In a letter to its members in August 2021, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members to become vaccinated to protect themselves against severe infections and that “available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.”

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a statement encouraging vaccine use and saying that “there is no evident basis for religious exemption” in its own or the wider Lutheran tradition. 

The Fiqh Council of North America, made up of Islamic scholars, has advised Muslims to receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and to debunk “baseless rumors and myths” about them.

While all of the aforementioned statements by major religious leaders specifically state the COVID vaccine, the religions encourage all types of vaccinations including the yearly flu vaccine as well as other normal childhood vaccines. 

Deadlines Looming

As the deadline to become vaccinated against COVID-19 nears, there has been a rush of healthcare workers applying for religious exemptions. Some healthcare systems are providing religious exemptions to vaccines while others are not. Remember, it is entirely up to the healthcare system and varies from state to state. 

Bristol Health, a health system with only 1,800 employees, approved 46 applications for COVID vaccine exemptions this year, 39 of which were granted on religious grounds.

In other states, such as Rhode Island, healthcare institutions have denied vaccine exemptions and workers have filed suits in state court. Legacy Health in Oregon has denied hundreds of religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine as well as the flu vaccine. 

Regardless of religion, the COVID vaccine, as well as the flu vaccination, are all recommended and highly encouraged. Religious exemptions are not guaranteed and individuals should not assume they will be granted one. The best course of action is to become fully vaccinated against not only the coronavirus but also the flu. 

Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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