Religious objections to vaccination warrants pose a delicate challenge to the courts

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When people request religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine, they enter a legal world shaped by Seeger. Even though this case was technically only about the interpretation of the bill, it quickly began to influence religious freedom in many other areas. For example, when the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) assesses such complaints, it uses ideas and language derived from Seeger.

With the rapid increase in requests for vaccine exemptions, many people are realizing for the first time how flexible these standards can be. When an employee sends you a letter claiming that their religious beliefs prevent them from getting the vaccine, what do you do? If you are a school administrator and a parent writes a letter, perhaps co-signed by a pastor, stating that their child cannot wear a mask because of their sincere beliefs, how can you respond? What are the mechanisms for determining whether it is authentic religious claims, or whether the claimants are truly sincere?

The answer, until now, tended to be anything goes. Most employers and government agencies give applicants the benefit of the doubt and find them sincere and religious. It doesn’t mean that all sincere belief is however accommodated. Businesses only need to make “reasonable accommodation”, so they can deny a claim if doing so would place a significant burden on them. In government settings, sincere belief will take you further, but there are still questions about how to balance the “compelling interestGovernment (among people with health care, for example) and the importance of religious freedom. How does that calculation change when a large number of people apply for the same exemption and when those exemptions, especially in large numbers, pose risks to public health?

Vaccine exemptions are a blatant case of what lawyers call “third party damage”. Typically, a religious exemption or accommodation affects only a believer and the state. Prison bans facial hair, but incarcerated Muslim man wants grow a short beard as an expression of his faith and dedication. State law requires formal education until the age of sixteen, but an Amish child religious and family life require otherwise. Cases like these don’t really affect anyone else. It’s another matter if, for example, a person’s religious belief forces them to violate anti-discrimination laws, refuse services LGBTQ people, abuse their students, or potentially spread a deadly virus.


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