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July 05, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Sincerely Held or Suddenly Held Religious Exemptions to Vaccination?

by Mark E. Wojcik

The statistics for COVID-19 are staggering. The World Health Organization reports that as of January 2022, there have been more than 300 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 (303,169,398 cases as of January 9, 2022) and more than 5.4 million deaths from COVID-19 (5,479,804 deaths as of January 9, 2022). Within just the United States, there have been almost 60 million confirmed cases (59,848,908 as of January 9, 2022) and more than 800,000 deaths (836,603 deaths as of January 9, 2022). Numbers continue to rise each day.

Several vaccines for COVID-19 are available, although they are not distributed fairly around the globe. But as of January 2022, more than 9 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally (9,118,223,397 vaccine doses administered as of January 5, 2022). And within the United States, almost half a billion vaccine doses have been administered (485,275,895 vaccine doses administered as of December 23, 2021).

Several vaccines for COVID-19 are available, although they are not distributed fairly around the globe.

Several vaccines for COVID-19 are available, although they are not distributed fairly around the globe.


Most religions and religious groups today do not object to medical vaccinations. To the contrary, most fully support vaccinations. For example, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has stated that “COVID-19 exists, and the only way to return to normal is to get vaccinated.” Pope Francis himself supports vaccinations against COVID-19, stating that getting jabbed is “an act of love.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops similarly said that “being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.” According to research from Vanderbilt University, other Christian denominations that have no theological opposition to vaccines include Amish, Anglican, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, Mormon, Pentecostal Christians, Quakers, Seventh-day Adventist, and Unitarian-Universalist. Vaccination is widely accepted in countries that are predominantly Buddhist. Hinduism and Islam have no prohibitions against vaccination. Judaism supports vaccinations to protect life and health. And the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’is of the United States urges followers to “adhere scrupulously to public health guidelines that have been established in their state” including “protocols for . . . vaccination.”

The research from Vanderbilt University found theological opposition to vaccination only within the Dutch Reformed Church, Christian Scientists, and a handful of faith-healing denominations (Faith Assembly, Faith Tabernacle, the Church of the First Born, and the Endtime Ministries). But even within these groups there is not universal opposition to being vaccinated. Some members of Dutch Reformed Congregations may decline vaccinations because they interfere with divine providence, but others may accept vaccinations as a gift from God to be used with gratitude. The Church of Christ, Scientist, for its part, teaches that disease can be prevented or cured by focused prayer, but there are no strict rules against vaccination. The founder of the Church, Mary Baker Eddy, stated that “[r]ather than quarrel over vaccination, I recommend, if the law demand, that an individual submit to this process, that he obey the law, and then appeal to the gospel to save him from bad physical results.”

Given that most religions actually support vaccination, when should individuals be allowed to claim religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandates? Should an individual be allowed to claim a religious exemption when leaders of that person’s religion support vaccinations as a matter of public health, knowing that the failure to get vaccinated puts that person and many others at risk? What steps should employers, educational institutions, and places of public accommodation be allowed to take when they suspect that a claimed religious belief or practice is not sincerely held but rather is either only recently invented or falsely claimed? And why should individuals who successfully claim a religious exemption to vaccination be allowed to put others at risk in situations not essential, such as watching a movie in a theater or visiting an art gallery or museum? (Although activities such as visiting a museum or watching a movie are important, they aren’t essential.) Does claiming a religious exemption to vaccination allow individuals to object to wearing facial masks or other personal protective equipment, or to escape temperature checks, or to avoid being tested regularly or to show negative test results? Is there a religious right to put the health of others at risk?

State and local governments appear to be particularly ill-suited to adjudicate the sincerity of claims that religious beliefs or practices prohibit compliance with a mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19. First, objections to vaccine mandates may be seen as political rather than religious. (In the United States and some other countries, the decision to get vaccinated sometimes became a political position rather than a medical decision.) Second, governmental units have no realistic way to measure accurately whether the sincerity of a claimed religious belief justifies an exemption from a generally applicable rule to preserve public health. And third, as we’ve recently seen with medical exemptions in Australia, different levels of government may reach different results when adjudicating the sincerity of a claimed religious exemption.

Religious exemptions from vaccination mandates should be granted only for sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, not for suddenly held beliefs invented merely to avoid vaccination. Each claim for a religious exemption must be evaluated on its individual merit. Some points can help determine whether a religious belief is sincerely held or just recently invented and thus not worthy of recognition.

  1. A person claiming an exemption from a vaccination mandate because of a religious belief or practice must be required to submit that claim in writing. The person claiming an exemption should also agree to answer questions about the claim and to submit documentary evidence if needed to decide the authenticity of the claim.
  2. The person must be informed that deliberately making a false statement orally or in writing can involve criminal charges. In an employment setting, deliberately making a false oral or written statement may also involve disciplinary actions and dismissal from employment. In a school setting, deliberately making a false oral or written statement may incur dismissal from the school.
  3. The written claim for a religious exemption should acknowledge that the refusal to be vaccinated may put the person at risk of contracting or transmitting the disease and may put at risk family members, friends, coworkers, and medical personnel.
  4. The written claim for a religious exemption from vaccination should expressly state the specific reasons why an exemption is being sought.
  5. The claim for a religious exemption from vaccination should disclose whether the person would agree to accept medical treatment if the person becomes ill from the disease, or whether the religious practices or beliefs claimed would prevent receiving treatment or care.
  6. The claim should also disclose whether the religious practices or beliefs claimed would also prevent the person from being tested for the disease or from having to wear a mask to protect others.
  7. The person must provide a date on which the person began practicing this religion or following these beliefs. If that date is within the previous three years, the person must also provide a detailed narrative about how the person recently came to this religious belief or practice.
  8. The claim should state whether the religious belief or practice against vaccination is held universally and uniformly within that person’s religion.
  9. The claim should also disclose whether and when the person has had other vaccinations and explain why those other vaccinations were acceptable.
  10. To support the claim for a religious exemption, a religious or spiritual leader should certify the religious or spiritual basis of the claim and that the claimant is a member of that faith group. The City of Chicago, for example, requires this affirmation in the form it uses to request a religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination for employment with the city: “I have met with and provided religious or spiritual counsel to the . . . employee regarding their sincerely[-]held religious beliefs or practices. I affirm that this employee is a member of our religious organization. I further affirm that these beliefs regarding any immunization or immunizing agent are in line with the tenets of our religious or spiritual faith, teachings, [and] practices.”

Asking an individual who claims a religious exemption from a vaccination mandate to support that claim with specific information and supporting affirmations may be seen as burdensome, but it can also be seen as a way to clarify and deepen the religious or spiritual belief. With more than 800,000 persons in our country already dead from COVID-19, there is no room for false or invented religious claims. The vaccinations have been proven effective in diminishing both the incidence and the severity of new illnesses, justifying federal, state, and local governments in requiring them as a nondiscriminatory public health measure.

Americans largely support religious freedom and the recognition of sincerely held religious beliefs. But they do not support suddenly invented and spurious claims. The public interest in public health also means that some additional precautions can be justified even when a claim of religious exemption is found.

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Mark E. Wojcik

Professor of Law, University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

Mark E. Wojcik is a professor of law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. His teaching, advocacy, and scholarship focus on legal skills, international law, and human rights.