U.S. pastors and advocacy groups rally against COVID-19 vaccination mandates

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Oct. 14 (Reuters) – From the outside, the First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, Mississippi could almost be mistaken for a storage shed without the steeple.

From the modest building however, Shane Vaughn, the pastor of the Pentecostal Church, has helped lead an online movement promoting personal faith as a way to bypass COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the workplace.

It publishes form letters for American workers seeking religious exemptions that have been downloaded from its website approximately 40,000 times, according to a screenshot of web traffic that it shared with Reuters.

“This is the only way out,” said Vaughn, 48, of the letters, which he makes available free of charge, which mixes Bible scriptures with warnings to employers of the legal fallout if they are not heeded.

As the Biden administration prepares for a federal mandate on vaccines and more states and businesses impose them to help accelerate the end of the pandemic, letter-writing efforts from religious leaders are bolstered by legal advocacy groups such as Liberty Counsel.

The organization said it has sent more than 100 letters to companies such as United Airlines Holdings Inc (UAL.O) and Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) promising litigation if they unduly reject requests for religious exemptions.

United spokeswoman Leslie Scott said the airline received the letter but had no impact on the company’s actions. Tyson has not commented on the letter.

United said about 2,000 of its 67,000 US employees have requested religious or medical exemptions. Tyson said only a “small percentage” of its more than 100,000 employees requested religious or medical accommodations by the Nov. 1 deadline.

U.S. employers are required by law to make reasonable job changes to accommodate a person’s religious beliefs, although they may seek information to determine whether the beliefs are religious in nature and “sincerely held.” .

Many employers want regulators to provide guidance in reviewing exemption requests in order to protect them from lawsuits alleging they were wrongly denied, said Roger King, of the HR Policy Association, a forum for large companies. .

While few organized religions oppose vaccines, according to a study by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, US law defines religion very broadly to include unknown belief systems with few adherents.

“TREAT HER IN MASS”

Employment attorneys have said that form letters pulled from the Internet could suggest that a person’s beliefs are not sincere, but that it would be difficult for an employer to determine. Employers could have a stronger legal basis for rejecting exemption requests based on verifiable false claims about vaccines, lawyers said.

“Religious exemption requests have become much rarer over the years and we are now processing them en masse,” said Kimberly Harding, employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody, who advises companies.

The Temple University Health System in Philadelphia, which employs 10,700 people, has already received 180 requests for religious exemptions, a significant increase from what it usually receives for its annual flu shot needs, said John Lasky. , director of human resources of the system.

Some of the exemption request forms included attachments that used similar wording, which Lasky said could indicate coaching, although he said they were not a determining factor in whether a request was granted.

What mattered was whether the person could explain how his beliefs prevented him from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, such as whether it “tied him to eternal damnation,” Lasky said.

In at least one case, an employer reversed its decision to deny a religious exemption after receiving a letter from Liberty Counsel.

The Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania told a nursing student on Sept. 7 that it was rejecting her request because it was based on a “factually incorrect” link between vaccines and aborted fetal cells, according to correspondence disclosed by Liberty. Counsel who redacted the student’s name.

A week later, Liberty Counsel sent a seven-page letter to Lehigh citing health officials in North Dakota and Louisiana who said there was a link between vaccines and fetal cells. The group asked Lehigh to either approve the student’s request or face “quick litigation.”

He approved the request the next day. Lehigh did not respond to requests for comment.

A letter from Vaughn appeared in one of the few successful trials against a vaccination warrant. Western Michigan University granted an exemption to a student athlete who used his letter but was still banned from school sports until the court intervened.

Harry Mihet, an attorney for Liberty Counsel, said the Christian group receives thousands of messages every week from people claiming that an exemption request has been denied for improper reasons. These include that the person’s denomination approved the shots or that the Pope was vaccinated, which does not affect an individual’s beliefs.

“I think these employers run the risk of being involved in litigation until the kingdom arrives,” Mihet said.

Vaughn, who served a three-year prison sentence for fraud and ran a car dealership, said he now spent 80% of his day helping people who asked their employer for more information, for example by describing how an employee’s beliefs conflict with those of a hospital. vaccination policy.

Vaughn is encouraged by companies that reject his exemption letters. “They make it harder and add layers to the process,” he said. “It’s proof that it works.”

Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Bill Berkrot

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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