The Human Resources Department of the City of San Francisco is having a crisis of faith. Back in June, the city announced that it would mandate COVID-19 vaccines for its 36,000 workers. By September, upwards of 90 percent of them had complied. But then, about three weeks ago, when the department announced that it would allow workers to request religious exemptions to the mandate in order to comply with federal law, the HR workers found themselves in a tricky situation: They had to scrutinize some 300 requests for medical and religious exemptions and distinguish the ones that were legitimate from those that were merely excuses from people who wanted to dodge the requirement for other reasons.
Earlier this week, I asked Mawuli Tugbenyoh, the HR department’s chief of policy, how the task was going. “Well, it’s certainly a labor-intensive process,” he sighed. “It does, at times, take us away from our broader response to COVID and keeping employees and the public safe.” To make matters even more complicated, the city’s police department had summarily approved religious exemption requests from a group of about 200 police officers—but when the city’s HR department reviewed the requests, they found many of them did not meet their standards. One officer cited his “religion of hedonism” as his objection. Tugbenyoh said this was only one of many that fell short of meeting the criteria. “Many people just sort of didn’t bother to even provide any real justification,” he noted.
That’s likely because in many cases, vaccine hesitancy is the real issue, and the religious exemption is simply a convenient loophole through which to dodge externally imposed vaccine requirements. Medical exemptions can be hard to come by—they require a documented diagnosis of one of the very few conditions that prevents someone from getting vaccinated. Religious exemptions are easier: They rarely require proof that an employee belongs to an organized religious group that opposes vaccines. (Few faiths do.) Rather, the onus of explaining the religious beliefs is left to the individual—and the employer must then decide whether the belief they describe is sincere, explained Poonam Lakhani, an employment attorney with the Prinz Law Firm in Chicago. “That’s a really difficult line for the employer to walk.”
As more employers adopt vaccine mandates, a growing number of vaccine-hesitant workers are trying to figure out how to use religious exemptions to keep their jobs without getting the jab. Many are taking to online Facebook groups to strategize around how best to persuade their bosses. Their conversations, which I have observed over the last few weeks, reveal a grassroots online movement gaining traction. Every day, I watched the groups grow, from hundreds to thousands of members, as exemption seekers all over the country organized, collaborated, and shared resources. The groups have an overall Christian flavor—members often quote scripture and urge each other to consult with pastors. But not all the conversation revolves around religion—there is also a strong anti-government strain. Members talk about their “medical freedom” and they rail against “tyranny.” While some of the members seem earnest in their religious objections to the vaccines, others skirt the line of opportunism.
Though most of the religious exemption social media groups are only a few weeks old, it’s clear that they have already become powerful sources of camaraderie and identity. Members bond over what they perceive as the injustice they are experiencing, forging alliances and even friendships in the comments section. They invite each other to antivaccine rallies, offer prayers, and praise each other’s fortitude. They accuse their employers of discrimination, of trampling on their free speech. When a group member posted that she was pregnant and worried about being terminated from her flight attendant job, one commenter wrote, “I love your mama bear protection for your unborn child and I love that you stand against tyranny.” Another chimed in, “Stay strong and believe that there are many other people like you putting their foot down and saying NO! Our unity will bring them down.”
Many of the discussions in the group focus on strategy. Some members post screenshots of the forms their employers ask them to fill out to obtain a religious exemption and asked the community for advice. A member wondered how she should respond when her employer wondered if she had received vaccines in the past. “If they come back and want to know why you are refusing this vaccine despite getting vaccinated in the past, just tell them that you were only made aware of vaccine ingredients and where they come from recently,” offered one commenter. In response to a similar post in another group, a commenter recommended side-stepping the question altogether and replying, “I believe this is moving to a personal medical discussion and not a religious discussion.”
In multiple posts, members debated the merits of citing in their religious exemption requests vaccine researchers’ use of cell lines from aborted fetuses. “Only one of the (beep) have fetal cell lines so was advised not to use,” observed one commenter. Instead, the commenter recommended, “Find verses of the Bible that talk about our body being the temple of God.” Another commenter disagreed: “I used the fetal cell line government documents that state they are used in the testing, production of the jabs plus my Bible verses to reinforce my beliefs, and mine was approved.” Should these tactics fail, don’t despair, members reassure one another: As a last resort, you can always quit and find a job that won’t make you get the shot. One oft-posted resource for this is a database of opportunities that don’t require vaccination. Recent open positions include an early childhood teacher and literacy coach in New Jersey, an assistant registrar at a college in California, a nurse in North Carolina, and an optician in Illinois.
Another option relies on obscure Biblical scholarship. One member initially suggested that employees should ask to “see the credentials” of people who are evaluating religious exemptions—but there’s more. “Better yet,” the member added, “submit their scripture rebuttal in Koine Greek or Hebrew and ask for the companies’ reasoning for denial in a biblical language.” A member who identified himself as a pastor advised employees to refuse to answer any questions at all, and instead just hand over a Bible. “Unspiritual people cannot understand spiritual things. This is why you just hand them a Bible and let them figure it out. You just give the Bible scriptures. They are simply trying to trap people with wording!!” the member wrote. He claimed that he’s helped 75 people use this technique, and not one of their requests was denied.
Sometimes, members of the group expressed anxiety about their employers’ other COVID-19 mitigation policies, as well, with regular testing for those who refuse to be vaccinated as a particular point of concern. “People are reporting that they’re getting sick after taking the test,” one recent post said. “I’m in a health-oriented group and have learned that the swabs are sterilized with ethylene oxide, which is a cancer-causing agent,” a commenter responded. “Once or twice might not hurt you, but every week, at this point for who knows how long, might be a different story.”
In addition to sharing their own tips and warnings, members also pass around templates for religious exemptions, direct each other toward advice from lawyers, and act as a kind of clearinghouse for information about people who promise to help employees secure their religious exemption letters. Some pastors have said they are willing to sign religious exemption requests for free, while a cottage industry of “consultants” will offer their expert advice for a fee. Several members recommend The Healthy American, where seekers of religious exemptions can select from three tiers of consulting services. For a mere $175, the top-of-the-line “concierge packet” promises customers “exact step-by-step instructions for what to do” and a buffet of options for letters signed by a pastor. “This lady is seriously so helpful,” gushed one commenter about the service.
Dorit Reiss, a legal scholar and professor who studies vaccine and the law at the University of California-Hastings College of Law, said she finds the people who are profiting from religious exemption consulting especially frustrating—because they’re especially difficult to accuse of any specific wrongdoing. “We would love to see legal action against these people, but the truth is it would be really hard to do that. They would present it as, ‘We’re not helping people to lie. We’re just helping people navigate the complex legal system.’”
The groups may be full of triumphant posts from members who say their exemption requests have been approved, but there is some evidence that employers are beginning to hold these requests to a higher standard than they had in the past. In August, the Conway Regional Health System, a network of clinics and hospitals in Arkansas, announced that it would require employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Within days, hospital administrators reported receiving an overwhelming number of requests for exemptions from workers who claimed that their religious beliefs prohibited them from getting vaccinated. Many of the requests cited the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses in vaccine development. The practice of using these lines in medical research is widespread. Nonetheless, Conway CEO Matt Troup told Becker’s Hospital Review, “This was significantly disproportionate to what we’ve seen with the influenza vaccine.”
In September, Troup announced that any employee who requested a religious exemption on the basis of fetal cell lines would also have to submit a form attesting that they didn’t use any other drugs developed with the cell lines—including Tylenol, aspirin, and Tums. “A lot of this, I believe, is a hesitancy about the vaccine,” Troup told a local NBC affiliate, “and so that’s a separate issue than a religious exemption.”
Lakhani, the employment lawyer, said that requirements like Troup’s, along with questions about previous vaccines, could help employers evaluate the sincerity of a request. But religious beliefs can be ephemeral: An employee could come back and say their faith has changed since the last time they got a flu shot or popped a Tylenol. “The default rule is to kind of take the employee’s word,” she said. “But that is very difficult right now.”
The slippery nature of religious exemptions is nothing new. Years before the pandemic, as the anti-vaccine movement was just gaining steam, several states, including California, New York, and Mississippi, stopped allowing parents to cite religion and other personal beliefs as a reason to be excused from school vaccine requirements. “A system like this rewards the best liars, the most sophisticated liars, or the people who have access to people willing to help them manipulate it,” says UC Hastings’ Reiss.
The City of San Francisco’s Tugbenyoh emphasized to me that his department takes its job of weeding out the liars extremely seriously. “We’re going to make sure that the scrutiny on these requests is thorough,” he said. They’ll keep wading through each one, no matter how outlandish it may seem. I asked him how he felt about that, and he paused, seeming to want to choose his words carefully. “When one is submitted in not the best of faith,” he said, “it can be frustrating.”