Pastor Offering COVID Exemption Form Will Sign it if People Join Church, Donate

An Oklahoma pastor is offering "religious exemption" forms on his church's website available for download as COVID-19 vaccine mandates ramp up around the U.S., the Associated Press reported.

Jackson Lahmeyer of Oklahoma, a 29-year-old pastor running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, will sign the forms of anyone who joins his church and makes a donation, though anyone can get the form signed by a religious leader.

More than 35,000 people downloaded the form in a three-day period, Lahmeyer said.

"We're not anti-vaxxers. We're just pro-freedom," Lahymeyer said. "A lot of these people who have signed ... have already taken the vaccine. They just don't think it's right that somebody else should be forced or lose their job."

Americans are increasingly looking to religious exemptions as a way to evade vaccination, and the loophole is expected to become all the more common after President Joe Biden announced sweeping new vaccine mandates last week that apply to more than 100 million workers in the U.S. This includes employees of the executive branch and anyone who works at a business with 100 or more employees, the AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NJ Vaccine Requirement Protestors
An Oklahoma pastor is offering religious exemption forms for the COVID-19 vaccine, which he says he'll sign for anyone who joins his church and makes a donation. A woman holds a sign during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J, on Jan. 13, 2020. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

The administration acknowledges that some small minority of Americans will use — and some may seek to exploit — religious exemptions. But it said it believes even marginal improvements in vaccination levels will save lives.

It's not clear yet how many federal employees have requested a religious exemption. The Labor Department has said an accommodation can be denied if it causes an undue burden.

In the states, mask and vaccine requirements vary, but most offer exemptions for certain medical conditions or religious or philosophical objections. The use of such exemptions, particularly by parents on behalf of their schoolchildren, has been growing over the past decade.

The allowance was enshrined in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of "sincerely held" religious beliefs.

A religious belief does not have be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or "seem illogical or unreasonable to others," according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it can't be founded solely on political or social ideas.

That puts employers in the position of determining what is a legitimate religious belief and what is a dodge.

Many major religious denominations have no objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. But the rollout has prompted heated debates because of the longtime role that cell lines derived from fetal tissue have played, directly or indirectly, in the research and development of various vaccines and medicines.

Roman Catholic leaders in New Orleans and St. Louis went so far to call Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 shot "morally compromised." J&J has stressed that there is no fetal tissue in its vaccine.

Moreover, the Vatican's doctrine office has said it is "morally acceptable" for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines that are based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses. Pope Francis himself has said it would be "suicide" not to get the shot.

In New York, state lawmakers attempted to make the vaccine mandatory for medical workers, with no religious exemptions. On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked the rule because it lacked the opt-out.

An August AP-NORC poll found that 58 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 72 percent of white mainline Protestants, 80 percent of Catholics and 73 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated say they have been vaccinated. Seventy percent of nonwhite Protestants say they have been, including 70 percent of Black Protestants.

Among white evangelical Protestants, the religious group least likely to have been vaccinated, 33 percent say they will not get the shot.

Across the U.S., public officials, doctors and community leaders have been trying to help people circumvent COVID-19 mask and vaccine requirements.

Obtaining a religious exemption is not as simple as producing a signed form. Measles outbreaks in schools over the past decade prompted some states to change their policies. Some now require an actual signed affidavit from a religious leader, instead of an online form. California got rid of nonmedical exemptions in 2015.

Some private employers are taking a hard line. United Airlines told employees last week that those who obtain religious exemptions will be put on unpaid leave until new coronavirus testing procedures are in place.

In Los Angeles, Police Chief Michel Moore said he is waiting for guidance from the city's personnel department regarding the exemptions. The city has mandated that municipal employees get vaccinated by Oct. 5 unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption. A group of LAPD employees is suing over the policy.

"I can't and won't comment on the sincerity level" of people claiming a religious exemption, the police chief said. "I don't want to speculate. Religion in America has many different definitions."

Ten LAPD employees have died of COVID-19, and thousands in the department have been infected.

In Washington state, approximately 60,000 state employees are subject to a mandate issued by Gov. Jay Inslee that they be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their job, unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption and receive an accommodation that allows them to remain employees.

As of Tuesday, more than 3,800 workers had requested religious exemptions. So far, 737 have been approved, but officials stressed that an exemption does not guarantee continued employment.

Once the exemption is approved, each agency has to evaluate whether the employee can still do the job with accommodation while ensuring a safe workplace. Seven accommodations so far have been granted.

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the process "may help distinguish between a sincerely held personal belief and a sincerely held religious belief."

Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Vial
Religious objections, once used only sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot. A member of the Philadelphia Fire Department prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site setup in Philadelphia on March 26, 2021. Matt Rourke/AP Photo