A group called One Washington is holding seminars statewide to teach people how to apply for a religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine.
State employees and healthcare workers are among those in Washington who will soon need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as a condition of their employment.
Although Covid-19 vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing disease or keeping it mild in breakthrough cases, a percentage of people do not wish to be vaccinated. Washington state law provides an exception for people who have “sincere religious beliefs” that prevent them from getting the vaccine.
The group Washington runs seminars statewide to teach people how to apply for this exemption. The organizers are associated with a church in Gig Harbor called Harborview Stock Exchange. At the start of the pandemic, the church made headlines after suing Washington state over emergency orders that prevented churches from hosting in-person services.
After Governor Jay Inslee announced the state would require vaccines for some employees, One Washington organizers said they were inundated with people asking what to do. They started offering seminars in churches and quickly attracted large crowds. In recent weeks, they say they have also affected thousands of people in Washington state and Hawaii.
One of these seminars was held at Island Church on Bainbridge Island on Wednesday. About 100 people attended, which is surprising given the liberal tendency of the island. No one except this reporter wore a mask during the indoor event, despite a recent increase in coronavirus cases among unvaccinated people.
Much of the seminar focused on civic education rather than religion.
State Representative Jesse Young, a Republican from Pierce County, gave a lengthy presentation arguing that the state’s vaccine mandate was unconstitutional. He asserted that the governor does not have the power to make laws (although the governor’s emergency powers are contained in state law, including in RCW 43.06.220. The governor’s office says that ‘he has successfully defended against 17 challenges its power to act during the pandemic).
Young cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination not only on the basis of race but also religion.
The law requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees for their sincere religious beliefs, as long as they do not create undue hardship on the employer.
One Washington borrows generously from the language of the civil rights movement; they opened Wednesday’s seminar with a quote from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
They also use the language of the movement for abortion rights, including “my body, my choice”.
When it comes to making vaccines mandatory, “people on the other side conveniently forgot they said that,” said Mike Jonez, the Washington State Patrol volunteer chaplain who co-founded One Washington.
Jonez also denied that the group is pursuing an anti-vaccine program.
“We are for freedom of choice,” he said.
Public health experts counter that a number of commonly accepted practices require people to act in the name of the safety of the community. For example, it is illegal to drive your car while intoxicated.
“Religion is like a black box”
Many Christian leaders have urged their congregations to get vaccinated, including those in the Catholic Church. The pope called obtaining the vaccine an “act of love” and suggested it was a moral and ethical obligation. Evangelical Christians are an outlier, however, and have higher rates of non-vaccination, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One of the Washington seminars gave general advice on requesting a religious exemption, how to fill out forms from your human resources department, and how to find reasonable accommodations provided by your employer.
They warned people not to fall into “potentially tricky questions” such as whether you had taken any drugs or vaccines before. They claim that you don’t have to “prove” your religion to get an exemption.
“Religion is like a black box,” Jonez said. “You just have to have it. You don’t have to show it.”
Organizers released a video of a woman named Michelle who they said had successfully requested a religious exemption.
In the video, Michelle suggested that people not use the argument that they oppose vaccines because fetal cells may have been used in their development, as this may change with future vaccines.
In her application, Michelle cited the Bible: “My physical body is a holy temple of my Lord Christ and Savior. She went on to write, “I will not put anything in my body that violates my religion or my conscience before God.” . “
Finally, the presenters asked people to make a proclamation of faith by inviting Jesus into their lives. They then provided a QR code that would allow them to download a letter from the church with an “affirmation of faith”.
It is not known if this approach will work.
Each employer has their own process for religious accommodations. The Washington State Religious Exemption Request Form asks employees to state two things:
- Whether you have a sincere religious belief or a religious belief that prevents you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and
- That you have never received a vaccine or medication from a health care provider as an adult.
These questions have a high bar, and few Christians, other than Christian Scientists, would likely qualify under this standard.