By Michael Gryboski, Mainline Church Editor | Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Biden and vaccine
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program at the White House on Aug. 23, 2021, in Washington, D.C. | JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

A federal government agency’s announced plan to keep track of employees who have refused on religious grounds to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has drawn concern from conservatives.

Earlier this week, the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia announced the creation of the “Employee Religious Exception Request Information System.” The federal agency is responsible for supervising defendants awaiting trial in the District of Columbia and formulating release recommendations. 

According to the announcement posted to the federal register Tuesday, the “Employee Religious Exception Request Information System” aims to maintain “personal religious information collected in response to religious accommodation requests for religious exception from the federally mandated vaccination requirement in the context of a public health emergency or similar health and safety incident.”

“The system of records will assist the Agency in the collection, storing, dissemination, and disposal of employee religious exemption request information collected and maintained by the Agency,” stated the announcement.

Public comments about the new system will be received until Feb. 10. 

“This new system will be effective upon publication. New or modified routine uses will be effective February 10, 2022.” 

The Daily Signal, an online news publication founded by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, published an article Tuesday expressing concern over the new records system.

Sarah Parshall Perry and GianCarlo Canaparo, both legal fellows at Heritage’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, argued that the new system “will likely serve as a model for a whole-of-government push to assemble lists of Americans who object on religious grounds to a COVID-19 vaccine.”

“The announcement also does not say what the agency will do with this information after it has decided an employee’s religious accommodation request,” they wrote.

“And neither does the announcement explain why the Biden administration chose to test this policy in an agency with a majority-black staff, who are both more religious and less vaccinated than other groups.”

Perry and Canaparo believe that President Joe Biden was “doing his best to win first place in subjecting Americans with sincerely held religious beliefs to differential treatment.”

“Take the Department of Defense, for example — which has failed to grant a single religious exemption on behalf of any service members requesting one for the federal vaccine mandate,” they continued.

“Biden voiced support for passage of the patently faith-hostile Equality Act—a bill that would gut the Religious Freedom Restoration Act entirely when it intersects with LGBTQ+ protections and entitlements in public accommodations.”

The announcement from the agency drew a response from Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who tweeted out the Daily Signal article and included the eyes emoji. 

In recent months, as the federal government has moved to mandate COVID-19 vaccination in various ways, several individuals and groups have expressed religious liberty concerns.

Earlier this month, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction on behalf of several military personnel suing the U.S. Navy over its failure to grant religious exemptions for the military’s vaccine mandate.

“The Navy provides a religious accommodation process, but by all accounts, it is theater. The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial,” wrote O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee.

“The Navy servicemembers in this case seek to vindicate the very freedoms they have sacrificed so much to protect. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the government no license to abrogate those freedoms. There is no COVID-19 exception to the First Amendment. There is no military exclusion from our Constitution.”

In November, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate that would have required businesses with 100 employees or more to force workers to get vaccinated or be tested weekly. 

In late November, a federal judge appointed by President Donald Trump blocked the enforcement of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers in 10 states. 

According to polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, 60% of respondents said they believe that “there are no valid religious reasons to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine,” while 38% disagreed. 

However, most respondents expressed support for some level of religious accommodations for the vaccine mandate. Thirty-nine percent said they either completely or mostly agreed that “anyone who simply says that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination goes against their religious beliefs” should be granted a religious exemption.

Meanwhile, 55% of respondents said they agree that anyone who “has a record of refusing to receive other vaccinations” due to their religious beliefs should be able to claim a religious exemption. And 57% of respondents said that anyone who “belongs to a religious group that has a record of refusing to receive other vaccinations” should be able to claim a religious exemption.

There has been much debate about the veracity of claims that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 violates Christian beliefs. 

In September, Dallas Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress argued there is “no credible religious argument against” COVID-19 vaccines. Some, including Catholic leaders, have pointed out that the vaccines relied on aborted fetal cell lines in their testing or development.

However, Jeffress contends that those who oppose the vaccines’ connection to fetal cell lines should also “abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection.”

In October, Roman Catholic Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio stressed that “no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”

In December 2020, the Vatican declared that COVID-19 vaccines are “morally acceptable” for Catholics to take even if they have “used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

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