Religious Exemptions Should Not Go Unchallenged: Strengthening the Vaccine Mandate

Cleveland Francis, Jr., MD


October 08, 2021

Widespread vaccination is our best tool to fight COVID-19 and prevent further mutations, but as vaccine mandates become increasingly prevalent in healthcare institutions and across the public and private sector, some employees are requesting exemptions based on religious beliefs.

I respect all religions and have gone out of my way to accommodate religious beliefs in my practice, but I don't believe that those beliefs should be allowed to put others in harm's way. I am a Christian and the commandment to love my neighbor as myself has inspired my dedication to medicine and patient care. In fact, "love your neighbor" appears to be a common theme in all major religions. What better way to demonstrate compassion and love for the community at large than to take the vaccine and help control the spread of this highly transmissible virus?

Allowing employees to opt out of a simple vaccination that can protect the individual, and, importantly, others in the community is difficult to defend in any work environment, but it is particularly troublesome in a healthcare setting with highly vulnerable patients and severely overburdened coworkers.

What is the basis for religious exemption? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from discrimination on the basis of religion, among other things, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers who have sincerely held religious beliefs — unless doing so poses an undue hardship "…. if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work."

Employers are required to accommodate only those religious beliefs that are "sincerely held" and are entitled to question this claim if it seems suspect, but regardless, the employer decides what the reasonable accommodation will be.

None of the leaders of major religions oppose vaccination, and many have been outspoken in urging followers to take this important step to promote public health; however, some local religious leaders and online sites are continuing to promote unfounded conspiracy theories. Religious exemption provides a convenient loophole to get around vaccine mandates.

We must continue to counter these unfounded assertions with facts.

  • The new mRNA vaccines do not alter DNA, do not contain microchips, do not make you magnetic, do not cause infertility, are not harmful in pregnancy, and do not harm the unborn.

  • Consistent with other pharmaceutical research, fetal cell lines developed decades ago were used to develop and test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and other fetal cell lines are being used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but the vaccines themselves do not contain any fetal cells. Many of the medicines in common use today, such as Tylenol, Motrin, Tums, Lipitor, Benadryl, and many others were developed and tested using fetal cells.

Baseless exemptions put immune-compromised individuals and the elderly at risk for serious illness and death, and add to the burden of an already stressed healthcare system, contributing to physical and mental burnout of medical providers and overcrowding of our emergency rooms, compromising our ability to care for other patients. Widespread vaccination is critical to stopping the emergence of variant strains of the virus that may be even more lethal than the current one. This breakthrough vaccine technology should be hailed as a miracle and a path to handling other viruses and diseases that may challenge us in the future.

While I personally feel that there are no legitimate religious reasons for exemption from vaccination when we are dealing with a deadly pandemic, I understand the importance of giving all requests a fair hearing and complying with EEOC requirements.

I urge you to join with me to mitigate the effects of allowing exemptions. Encourage your health systems and employers in your community to take a strong stand to enforce vaccine mandates, severely limit exemptions, and require regular testing for those who are exempt. Some excellent examples of restrictive measures follow:

  • The Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas requires those claiming religious exemption to attest that their religious belief is sincerely held and consistent, and that they will (1) not use any of the medications on the extensive list of common medications tested using fetal cells; (2) agree to periodic COVID testing; and (3) agree to reassignment to protect others.

  • United Airlines has granted religious exemptions but the accommodation is to put the employees on indefinite unpaid leave without regular benefits, which has been upheld in the courts in previous religious exemption cases.

Individual religious beliefs cannot be allowed to put others in danger. A faith-based exempted unvaccinated individual can cause serious illness and, in some cases, death. We have an obligation to keep staff and patients safe. Let's provide stringent criteria to limit religious exemptions and take steps to assure that those exempt from vaccination observe mask and public health measures and are tested frequently.

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About Dr Cleve Francis
Cleve Francis, MD, is a staff cardiologist with the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute (IHVI) in Northern Virginia. He is former president and founder of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, co-chairman of the IHVI Antiracism/Equality Taskforce, diversity advisor of IHVI, and a member of the Inova Inclusion Counsel.

Dr Francis is also a songwriter and performer. He is a former recording artist on the Capitol Nashville Country Music Label (1992-1995), and his music has been featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Connect with him:
Twitter: @muzicdoc2
Facebook: Cleve Francis
Instagram: @muzidoc


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