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Religious Exemptions To Vaccine Mandates Present A Dilemma For Employers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More employers are requiring workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine without the option of getting tested instead, and some workers are pushing back. Here in Washington, D.C., more than 400 fire and emergency medical workers applied for religious exemptions to the city's vaccine mandate. In Los Angeles, roughly a quarter of the police department is expected to seek religious exemptions.

To discuss this latest complication in getting more people vaccinated, we're joined by NPR business desk reporters Shannon Bond and Andrea Hsu. Good to have you both here.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Shannon, to start with, what have leaders of major religious groups been saying about getting vaccinated?

BOND: Well, so far, no major religion opposes the COVID vaccines. In fact, prominent religious leaders are endorsing them. Here's Pope Francis telling Catholics that getting vaccinated is an act of love.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BOND: He says, "love for oneself, for families and friends and for all people." Even the Christian Science Church, which counsels prayer rather than medical care, says it doesn't have an official policy on vaccinations. It leaves it up to individuals to make that decision. And, Ari, that's exactly why this is so complicated when it comes to religious exemptions from vaccine mandates - you know, for employers, for schools - because it's not about what religious institutions or leaders say. It's about personal belief.

SHAPIRO: And so what kinds of objections are people raising on the individual level?

BOND: Well, so I cover tech. I've been following a lot of these discussions on social media. And in particular, I've been looking at Facebook groups that are opposed to vaccine mandates. And a common question I'm seeing pop up in these groups is members asking each other, where can I get a religious exemption? What should I say - you know, trading tips on what to tell their employers. And one line of reasoning that people in these groups often cite is the false claim that these COVID vaccines contain fetal cells. And people who oppose abortion have raised that as a moral concern.

Now, to be clear, public health officials say fetal cell lines developed decades ago in the laboratory were used to develop and test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And that's a common practice in pharmaceutical research. Other fetal cell lines are being used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But these vaccines themselves, they do not contain any fetal cells.

SHAPIRO: OK, so, Shannon, you've been following the conversations among objectors on social media. And, Andrea Hsu, you've been talking with some of the employers who are seeing these requests come in. What are they saying?

HSU: Yeah, Ari. Well, I talked today with Matt Troup. He's the CEO of Conway Regional Medical Center. That's a hospital in central Arkansas. He's gotten 45 requests for religious exemptions, way more than he normally gets for the flu vaccine. And they're all based on the fetal cell issue that Shannon just talked about. You know, Troup told me that he took this as an opportunity to educate his workforce. He had his team compile a list of 28 common medicines that also used fetal cells in testing, or research, or development. And this list, which I have right here, it includes things like Tylenol, ibuprofen, Claritin, even Tums. He sent this list out to everyone who applied for a religious exemption, and here's what he said about why he did that.

MATT TROUP: They need to know that if they're going to be consistent in their beliefs, that applies to a lot of different things other than the COVID vaccine.

HSU: Now, I should say that list didn't change anyone's mind. They still wanted the religious exemption. And Troup granted exemptions to everyone who asked for one. He points out it's only about 5% of his workforce. So the vast majority of his employees are vaccinated, and those that aren't will have to undergo regular testing.

SHAPIRO: So that hospital is an example of one that did grant religious exemptions. How common is that among employers?

HSU: Well, it's really hard to say. But remember; every employer does have an obligation to keep their workers safe, and the law puts employers in a pretty strong position when it comes to religious exemptions. Under the law, employers have to provide a reasonable accommodation for workers who have these sincerely held religious beliefs unless the accommodation poses an undue hardship.

So what's an undue hardship, right? Well, I talked to Roman Hernandez about it. He's an employment lawyer in Oregon.

ROMAN HERNANDEZ: An undue hardship is one in which the employer must bear more than a de minimis cost in accommodating an employee's religious beliefs.

HSU: And, Ari, you can guess what de minimis means - small or minimal. So it's a pretty low bar. Something as little as having to move people around to different shifts, that could count as an undue hardship. So that employer could use that to deny an employee an accommodation.

SHAPIRO: And have you found employers who are saying it's too hard for them to make these kinds of accommodations?

HSU: Well, yeah. Last week we saw the NBA deny a religious exemption request from Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins. San Francisco, of course, has a vaccine mandate for large indoor events, and the NBA said Wiggins will not be able to play at any home games until he's vaccinated. And, Ari, there's also United Airlines. They announced back in early August that all their U.S. employees would have to be vaccinated. A few weeks ago, they informed staff who had applied for religious exemptions that even if granted those exemptions, they would be put on unpaid leave.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. So by the legal standard of reasonable accommodations, does that qualify?

HSU: Well, that is the question. Is it reasonable? You don't lose your job, but you lose your income for an indefinite amount of time. Roman Hernandez, that lawyer I spoke with, he says unpaid leave has historically been upheld in court as a reasonable accommodation.

HERNANDEZ: It's probably not the accommodation that those workers wanted, but that is something that the employer is providing.

HSU: Now, a handful of United employees have sued, saying their rights were violated, that unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation. These employees, who include a pilot and a flight attendant, they were granted religious exemptions. They weren't fired, but they say they're basically being cut off from their jobs. United told me they think the case is without merit. And by the way, they report that 97% of their workforce is now vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. So that's Andrea with the workers' view. To come back to you, Shannon - rather, with the companies' view. To come back to you and the workers, Shannon, what should employees thinking of applying for religious exemptions keep in mind?

BOND: Well, you know, it's been interesting looking at these Facebook groups, Ari, right? People are sharing links to get paperwork sort of proving that they have an - they need an exemption. So there are some pastors and online churches that are offering people letters to give to their employers. Sometimes that's in exchange for a donation. You know, there's sort of other - there's opportunists in here. There are links to people who claim to be consultants who say they can help folks get exemptions. There's this one group that offers different packages, so you could pay $175 to buy phone consulting, sample forms, even a signed letter from a pastor. But as Andrea says, it's really up to the employer to decide whether or not to grant these exemptions, whether or not you have a signed a letter. So people should probably think twice about paying for these services.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Shannon Bond and Andrea Hsu, thank you both.

BOND: Thank you.

HSU: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.