The Baffling Legal Standard Fueling Religious Objections to Vaccine Mandates

When
people apply for a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine, they are
stepping into a legal world shaped by
Seeger. Even though that case was
technically just about the interpreting the draft act, it quickly began to
influence religious freedom in many other arenas. For example, when the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) evaluates these kinds of claims, they
use ideas and language derived from
Seeger.

With the rapid
rise in requests for vaccine exemptions, many people are realizing for the
first time just how flexible these standards can be. When an employee sends you
a letter claiming that their religious belief prevents them from receiving a
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 due to their sincere beliefs, how can you respond? What mechanisms are
there to determine whether these are bona fide religious claims, or whether
the claimants are truly sincere?

The answer, until
now, tended to be that anything goes. Most employers and government bodies give
claimants the benefit of the doubt and find them to be sincere and religious.
That does not mean that every sincere belief is accommodated, however. Businesses
must make only “reasonable accommodations,” and thus they can deny a claim if
doing so would cause a significant burden to them. In governmental settings,
sincere belief will get you farther, but there are still questions about how to
balance the “compelling
interest
” of the government (in people having health care, for example) and
the importance of religious freedom. How does that calculus change when a large
number of people request the same exemption—and when those exemptions,
especially in great numbers, pose public health risks?

Vaccine exemptions
are a stark case of what legal scholars call “third-party harm.” Typically, a
religious exemption or accommodation affects only a believer and the state. A
prison bans facial hair, but an incarcerated Muslim man wants to grow a short beard as an
expression of his faith and devotion. A state law requires formal education
until age sixteen, but an Amish child’s religious and family life
necessitate otherwise
. Cases like these do not really affect anyone else.
It’s a different matter if, for instance, one’s religious belief compels them
to violate antidiscrimination laws, deny
services
to LGBTQ people, misgender
their students
, or potentially spread a
deadly virus
.

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