Legislation pits religious freedoms against employer rights

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The Indiana Statehouse from Capitol Avenue. (IBJ photo/Lesley Weidenbener)

It’s one of the trickiest paths an employer must tread: when to make allowances for workers who express sincerely held religious views on matters ranging from work schedules to dress and grooming practices.

And for the past year, Indiana employers have faced one more sensitive area: whether to enforce COVID-19 vaccination mandates on workers who say the vaccines violate their religious beliefs.

For months, it’s been the employer that has decided whether to make exceptions, typically on a case-by-case basis. They’ve acted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, with latitude for employers to take actions to keep the workplace safe.

But a bill already advancing through the 2022 session of the Indiana General Assembly would remove the ability of employers to decide whether to grant religious exemptions. Instead, under House Bill 1001, any worker could request a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate and automatically get one, “without further inquiry.”

The bill raises thorny questions about the balance between a worker’s religious freedoms and the right of employers to keep workplaces safe for employees, co-workers, customers, and, in the cases of hospitals and clinics, severely ill patients.

The House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee will take public testimony on the proposal Dec. 16 in advance of lawmakers reconvening in full in January. More than 50 House Republicans—but no Democrats—have signed onto the bill.

Matt Lehman

State Rep. Matthew Lehman, R-Berne, said he authored the bill because vaccines are a personal and religious issue for many people, and businesses need to accommodate those beliefs.

However, some companies are not approving requests for religious exemptions, Lehman said. When the demands of business cross religious lines, “I think there needs to be some protections for the worker.”

But many of Indiana’s largest business and medical associations—including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indy Chamber, Indiana Manufacturers Association, Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Indiana State Medical Association—have opposed restrictions on businesses mandating vaccines.

Some say the legislation could hamstring efforts to rein in a pandemic that is once again filling hospitals. COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state have doubled in the past month, filling a record 70% of all staffed hospital beds, according to the Indiana Department of Health.

Nationwide, the pandemic has claimed more than 788,000 lives, including more than 17,000 in Indiana.

A step further

Paul Halverson

State health officials have repeatedly urged Hoosiers to get vaccinated, but some employers have gone a step further, laying down mandates. Many of Indiana’s hospital systems and some large manufacturers have required employees to get vaccinated, apply for a medical or religious exemption, or face termination. Several have fired workers who have refused, although some say they granted a small number of religious and medical exemptions.

Still, Indiana ranks 41st among all states for percentage of its population fully vaccinated, at about 51%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID tracker.

“The damage and the destruction that COVID-19 has had on individuals and communities is enormous,” said Paul Halverson, dean of the Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. “We finally have an ability to substantially curtail death and disability with these vaccines. And the idea that someone, anyone, would want to go out of their way to limit the effectiveness of the best tool that we have is very regrettable.”

Some economists say the Indiana economy cannot fully recover until the threat of the pandemic and an overloaded health care system are resolved.

Michael Hicks

Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said the ability of employers to protect workers and customers is fundamental. He said more Hoosiers died of COVID-19 in a recent two-day period than died in workplace accidents in any year in the past decade.

“So, in terms of the effect of legislation upon workplace disease and death, it is nearly a statistical certainty that prohibiting employers from mandating a COVID vaccine would cause more deaths than outlawing businesses from requiring hard hats, safety goggles, drug and alcohol screening, workplace speed limits, or training on equipment and vehicles,” Hicks said.

But, Lehman, the author, said the bill is needed because some employers have been reluctant to grant religious exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs, despite the federal law that allows for certain accommodations for religious reasons.

“We’re going down this path of mandated vaccinations, but we’re going to still follow what federal guidelines have laid out when it comes to religious exemptions and medical exemptions,” he said.

Religious exemption

Under the bill, an application for a medical exemption from a vaccine mandate would require a note from a physician, physician’s assistant or advanced practice nurse who has examined the employee and has concluded that the vaccine would be medically unsound for that person.

An application for exemption on religious grounds, however, would require only that an employee present a statement that the employee declines the vaccine “because of a sincerely held religious belief.” The employee would not have to state the religion or provide any details, including evidence that the belief is sincerely held.

“The employer must allow the employee to opt out of the employer’s COVID-19 immunization requirement … without further inquiry,” the bill says.

It’s unclear how many religions take issue with COVID-19 vaccines. According to a review by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, most of the world’s religions—including the vast majority of Christian denominations—have no theological objection to vaccinations. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and the Catholic Church have all issued statements saying their religion does not prohibit members from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

There are a handful of Christian denominations, along with several faith-healing sects, that have theological objections.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce argues that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers employees who are part of those denominations or can show a sincere religious objection to a vaccination.

Kevin Brinegar

“Employers have been complying with that for decades, and are familiar with that, rather than Indiana coming up with its own standard for religious exemptions,” said Kevin Brinegar, the chamber’s CEO.

Under Title VII, the burden is on employees, who must notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

“An employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” according to a Q&A published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.”

It continues: “An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.”

Brinegar said HB 1001 would open the door for exemptions too far, by granting carte blanche to anyone seeking religious exemptions, no questions asked.

But some advocates of religious freedom say the First Amendment of the Constitution protects workers even in matters of vaccination mandates.

“It’s totally unconstitutional to make a person justify their religious belief,” said Terre Haute attorney Jim Bopp. “All it has to be is sincerely held, and then is to be respected without question.”

Mandates so far

The workplaces in central Indiana that have imposed vaccination mandates—primarily health care organizations and some large manufacturers—permit employees to request religious exemptions.

Most of the region’s hospital systems imposed a vaccine mandate, and several already have terminated or suspended employees who did not comply. A group of Ascension St. Vincent nurses testified last month on a similar proposal that they were fired after their requests for religious exemptions were denied and they still refused to be vaccinated. They told lawmakers they hoped the legislation would help them get their jobs back.

A spokeswoman for Ascension St. Vincent did not respond to questions from IBJ about whether the hospital system—part of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic hospital system—had a position on HB 1001 or why the nurses’ religious exemptions were denied.

Roche Diagnostics, one of the region’s largest employers, said “a small number” of workers across its U.S. locations have been terminated after choosing not to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by the Nov. 15 deadline set by the company.

The company said 96.4% of its approximately 8,000 U.S. employees are fully vaccinated, and another 2.6% have approved exemptions for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs.

Roche spokeswoman Michelle Johnson said the company, which makes and services diagnostic equipment for hospitals and laboratories, has reviewed HB 1001 and continues to stand by its mandate.

“It is our top priority to protect the health and safety of our employees as we work to support the national response to COVID-19,” Roche said in a statement. “A vaccinated workforce enables us to continue to supply vital testing across the country, support our communities, our laboratory customers and the patients we serve.”

Eli Lilly and Co., one of the city’s largest employers, declined to say whether it supported or opposed HB 1001. In August, the drugmaker was one of the first Indiana employers to announce a vaccine requirement. It said the mandate included exceptions for those with medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs. Employees excused from the vaccine requirement are required to adhere to CDC guidance for masking, social distancing and periodic testing.

“Lilly will continue to work with local government and our business membership organizations to make clear we support the science behind the protection vaccines provide, as well as respect the legitimate needs for accommodations that some employees may have,” the pharmaceutical company said.

Whose call?

Brian Tabor

Some hospitals systems, including Indiana University Health and Eskenazi Health, referred questions about the legislation to the Indiana Hospital Association, a trade and lobbying group, which declined to say whether it supports HB 1001. Instead, it asked that the state redouble its efforts to increase Indiana’s vaccination rate before winter arrives.

“While we understand the desire to return to normalcy, the health care system remains under unprecedented strain,” said Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association.

Around the country, airlines, hospitals and manufacturers have instituted vaccine mandates. Employers such as United Air Lines, Tyson Foods and Massachusetts State Police have seen nearly 100% compliance, even as a handful of employees have chosen not to get vaccinated and left.

Nicolas Terry

The mandates are an appropriate and legally protected step to take in a national health emergency, said Nicolas Terry, executive director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. Any move now to limit employer mandates “would be irresponsible in the era of COVID,” Terry said.

The Indiana Public Health Association—which represents health departments, medical organizations and some hospitals—said it is urging legislators to do everything possible to maintain widespread, supported access to COVID-19 vaccination. But the organization stopped short of taking a position on HB 1001.

The Indiana Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 1,000 companies that employ about 400,000 workers, opposes the bill, saying it was vague on what constitutes a medical or religious exemption, among other things.

Brian Burton

“Our position is that manufacturers should make the determination based upon their business needs,” said Brian Burton, the association’s CEO.

But as far as the bill’s author is concerned, the issue is not whether vaccinations are effective or can slow or even stop the pandemic, but who should have a say in requiring them.

“I’m vaccinated,” Lehman said. “I think you should get vaccinated. But I don’t think any employer should be able to force you to get vaccinated against your will.”

Political fight

Democrats have not signed on to the bill, but Republicans don’t need them to. That’s because Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative chambers, which not only means they don’t need Democrats to vote yes, they don’t even need them in the chamber to vote at all.

Still, Democrats are expected to argue vehemently against the legislation—or at least the provisions related to employer mandates.

Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, the senior Democrat on the House committee that will hear the bill, said that, while it’s important to protect religious liberties, employers should be allowed to do what’s best to protect their workplaces.

“I believe that employers have an incentive to keep their employees healthy and working,” Hatfield said. “And that is bad public policy to prohibit them from doing what they believe is best for their workplaces.”

The bill is complicated, however, because it would also authorize several administrative actions that would allow Indiana to continue receive federal emergency funding, even if Gov. Eric Holcomb ends the state’s COVID emergency orders—or lawmakers end it for him.

Hatfield said that part of the bill has bipartisan support, because it would mean the difference in receiving money to help tens of thousands of low-income Hoosiers for medical care and food assistance.•

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11 thoughts on “Legislation pits religious freedoms against employer rights

  1. Maybe this bill has come about because those who claim to have sincerely held religious beliefs don’t actually have religious beliefs.

    “Micah Beckwith is a pastor in Noblesville and outspoken in conservative political circles. Earlier this year, he started getting messages from people looking for a way out of the COVID-19 vaccine when their work started voluntarily requiring it.

    “I’ll spend an hour on the phone, every other day it seems like, with people who are just bawling, they’re crying, they’re just saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to turn,'” he said. “‘And then I heard about you.'”

    Beckwith said many of them can’t necessarily articulate their resistance to vaccination in terms of faith. But they do deeply believe the vaccine isn’t right for them.

    “These people aren’t crazy,” he said. “These people are great people, they just tend to say, Hey, I just have a little bit of hesitancy here and I don’t think it’s right that I’m being forced to take this.”

    So Beckwith helps them frame those beliefs as faith. He estimates he’s helped thousands of people craft letters requesting religious vaccine exemptions, supported by scripture from the Bible.“


    1. So you’re attacking the length of the quote rather than the content. I welcome your advice on where I should cut next time.

      I personally think this shows another flaw in what the House wants to do. IMO, here’s a pastor saying out loud that he’s running a vaccine exemption mill – call him up, tell him the shot’s not for you, he’ll slap some verse around it and you’re good to go because you’re “great people” and you “aren’t crazy”.

      If I were running a business, and I started getting form letters from the same pastor, I’d sure want to be able to make a call and you know, see how sincerely held those religious beliefs might be. Does the individual in question even attend the church in question, or any church at all? Do they take medicines that also might have some of the same ethical issues as the COVID vaccine? Have they refused vaccines or flu shots in the past?

      All of that will be illegal in the state of Indiana. Whatever the individual says goes. No one is allowed to question each other’s beliefs. If we’re no longer going to have have organized religion, that we can take and pick and choose from whatever we want, I guess this means that we’re a godless country and we’re just worshipping ourselves.

      Here’s another article. I won’t quote from it in case I offend you based on how long my quote might be, but it’s also useful context.

      Few religions ban vaccination, but that counts little for religious exemptionshttps://api.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/oct/06/anthony-fauci/few-religions-ban-vaccination-counts-little-religi/

    1. Is it possible? Could it be probable that one can experience ultimate inner peace(“shalom”) and freedom from personal prejudices and bias decisions by adopting or adapting to this beautiful and loving way of life?
      Can you imagine living in this kind of world?…
      Matthew 7:1-5
      The Message
      A Simple Guide for Behavior
      7: 1-5 “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.“

    2. Matthew (and the rest of the Bible) was also written during a time in which people with the contagious plague of leprosy were banished to a life of isolation so as to not infect the rest of society.

      I missed the verses where Jesus commanded all to let the lepers infect everyone. Can you quote me those?

  2. Joe B., please drop the mic and walk off stage. Bravo.

    I am deeply religious, I generally vote Republican (except when someone named “Trump” is running) and I think Rep. Lehman isn’t looking more than 3 feet ahead of himself on this issue. Yes, getting vaccinated is a personal choice, but no, you don’t have the right to infect other people (no matter their faith) in the workplace because of your personal beliefs. Either arrange to work from home or find a new job that allows you to work from home. Final thought, actually a question: While I know bad reactions are happening, just how many people are hospitalized right now due to a bad reaction to the COVID vaccine vs. the sick due to not vaccinated?

  3. So I don’t have to prove or show that I don’t have Ebola, meningitis, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, shingles, MRSA, Chicken Pox, cold/flu, etc. to go to work, out to eat, a concert or travel nationally but all the sudden with Covid-19 which for the most part is only very dangerous for specific groups I can have my right to privacy and choice taken. Interesting don’t you think! p.s. Natural Immunity here!

    1. “A study over the weekend showed that neutralizing antibodies among people previously infected with Alpha (panel E), Beta (panel F), and Delta (panel G) completely failed to attach to Omicron. Those that were infected + vaccinated (or vaccinated + infected) had a strong response to Omicron (panel H).

      But just like vaccines, neutralizing antibodies isn’t the full story. So it’s important to look at “real world” data. A week ago, a South African study found reinfection rates were 3 times higher with Omicron compared to Delta. This past Friday the UK confirmed with their own analysis: Of 329 individuals identified with an Omicron infection in this period, 17 (4.9%) were linked to a previous confirmed infection. This equates to an Omicron reinfection rate of 3-8x higher than Delta.”


    2. Don’t try David B.

      There is only the Joe B. approach to healthcare. The media and career politicians support Joe B and his talking points as well.

      Phi Variant up next.

      Politicians and major IDNs don’t want this to end.

  4. The religious exemption thing seems just like another smoke screen for a party whose whole platform at the national level is to just obstruct what ever the current administration is doing.

    This is a coldly calculated political strategy by an unscrupulous party to sabotage the US with no thought for the number of people killed or the economic damage. All of this is to just win re-election because at the national level, when things go wrong, no matter who is to blame, people will blame the current administration. Out and out SABOTAGE!

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