Bioethics Program Director Robert Klitzman, M.D. recently authored an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled, “The next threat on the horizon: Religious exemptions from vaccine mandates.” Dr. Klitzman argues that employers mandating employee vaccinations will be “vital” for ending the pandemic, but that “a huge loophole looms – religious exemptions.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers “should accommodate workers who have ‘sincerely held’ religious beliefs,” but Dr. Klitzman explains the complications that arise from the current need to assess such a large number of cases based on such a broad definition, and he worries that religion may be easily used as an excuse.
Dr. Klitzman begins by explaining that the recent reports in medical and academic communities of a deluge of requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates have caused him to think about past patients. Specifically, he tells the story of one patient who believed prayer and herbal medicine would be enough to cure her cancer and only came to the hospital after two years, once her metastatic tumors had already become too severe to successfully treat. “Her case was one of the saddest I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Klitzman writes.
There’s also complexity within the religious exemption requests. Dr. Klitzman uses the example of those who request an exemption based on the false claim that all COVID-19 vaccines are made using fetal tissue. Then there are the exemption requests that cite broader religious or spiritual values, such as those regarding the “purity” of one’s body or the “unnatural” quality of vaccines. How do strong endorsements of the vaccine from Pope Francis and other religious leaders factor into all of these considerations?
Even if these requests are granted, they may ultimately cause harm to people exposed to unvaccinated individuals, argues Dr. Klitzman. The risk is intensified when exempted individuals work in institutions such as hospitals, and as Dr. Klitzman cites, “in New York State, around 25% of hospital workers and 32% of nursing home workers are not fully vaccinated.”
On August 26th, New York eliminated religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination requirements for healthcare workers, and Dr. Klitzman urges other states to do the same. He posits that if employers, public health officials, and political leaders do not close these loopholes and define mandates soon, “loosely drawn religious exemptions from vaccine mandates will contribute to ever more sickness and death.”