Charlotte churches offer religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. Will they work?

·3 min read

Some Charlotte churches have recently started offering religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but local attorneys say the exemptions won’t stand up in court.

This week Pastor Troy Maxwell announced that Freedom House Church would write religious exemptions to employers who require vaccinations. The exemptions would allow church members to cite religious reasons for why they don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is despicable for a business or government agency to force someone to take a vaccine that is unproven, dangerous and not fully tested,” the church said in a statement.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the vaccines safe and effective and recommends that people get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The Cathedral of St. Patrick has also offered a sample religious exemption form to parishioners who are seeking a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination, the church announced in a Facebook post.

Little legal merit, attorneys say

Local attorneys say these religious exemption forms would have little legal merit in court.

“These are very unlikely to work,” employment law attorney Sean Herrmann of Herrmann and Murphy told the Observer.

There are two conflicting regulations, added employment law attorney Joshua Van Kampen of Van Kampen Law: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religion-based discrimination, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires a workplace free from hazards.

Van Kampen said the requirement for employers to accommodate religious beliefs was “never intended to allow employees to circumvent public health and safety requirements.”

He said that judges and juries will likely be more sympathetic to employers seeking a safe work place than employees citing religious beliefs.

“Churches should not be handing out these accommodation letters like lollipops,” Van Kampen said.

Employers are not required to blindly accept requests for religious accommodations, Van Kampen said. There’s a vetting process to analyze the religious merit of an employee’s claim.

If, for example, someone received a flu shot but then cited religion to avoid the COVID-19 vaccination, that likely won’t pass a legal challenge, he said.

Herrmann’s and Van Kampen’s law firms have both received numerous requests to represent people trying to cite religious exemptions to avoid getting vaccinated. They’ve turned down each one.

“Those cases are not going to be meritorious in our opinion,” Herrmann said.

Religion and vaccinations

The Catholic Church has not expressed mass opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. Pope Francis has been vaccinated and has encouraged others to do the same, said Liz Chandler, a representative of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.

“The Vatican and the U.S. bishops have advised that it is acceptable for Catholics to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Chandler said. She added that, according to the church, those who don’t get vaccinated “must do their utmost to avoid transmitting the virus.”

Teddy Koch, a lifelong Catholic who attends Charlotte’s St. Peter Catholic Church, said he was shocked at St. Patrick’s offering vaccine exemption letters.

“This just seems really antithetical compared to the church I know,” he said.

Vaccination requirements have varied across Charlotte’s largest employers.

Both Atrium Health and Novant Health are mandating that employees get vaccinated. Mecklenburg County Public Health employees are also required to be vaccinated.

Medical and religious exemptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis, a Novant Health spokesperson told the Observer.

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