JASON RANTZ

Rantz: Email shows COVID religion exemption intentionally written to disqualify staff

Aug 24, 2021, 9:57 PM | Updated: Aug 25, 2021, 11:50 am
Jay Inslee, vaccine mandate...
Gov. Jay Inslee. (Office of the Governor)
(Office of the Governor)

Governor Jay Inslee’s office drafted an exemption form intended to disqualify as many staff as possible from avoiding his COVID vaccine mandate. As written, if staff took an antacid from a doctor, it would disqualify them from receiving a religious exemption. In fact, the original intent was only to offer a religious exemption “if we have to.”

Inslee is forcing tens of thousands of Washington employees to receive the COVID vaccine, even if they don’t need it or want it yet. The governor’s proclamation applies to state workers, health care workers, and school staff, regardless of age, risk factors, or recent COVID diagnosis. If they do not take the vaccine, they will lose their jobs and be ineligible for unemployment.

Employees can avoid the vaccine with a religious exemption. But emails reveal Inslee’s office drafted the policy to disqualify nearly everyone who seeks it. The policy shows a shocking animus towards religion.

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Email shows Inslee’s office didn’t want to offer religious accommodation

State agency employees were finally given their religious exemption forms on Monday, Aug. 23. It comes after Inslee’s staff deliberated ways to keep employees from seeking religious exemptions.

Inslee’s General Counsel Kathryn Leathers coordinated the exemption language with the Attorney General’s Office.

“Exemptions: medical for sure; and religious (if we have to; if yes, as narrow as possible),” Leathers wrote Aug. 3.

The state must offer religious accommodations, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But Leathers didn’t appear eager.

Q13 FOX reporter Brandi Kruse has more emails she exclusively reported. It sheds even more light on the deliberations.

Medicine means you’re not religious in Washington

According to numerous agency religious exemption forms, employees must assert they hold sincere religious beliefs or convictions that prohibit the COVID vaccine. This is the standard language. But the next question goes further.

“You affirm/agree that you have never received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult,” reads the second question.

A staff member who received an antacid or Neosporin from a doctor, nurse, or other health care provider would be disqualified from an exemption under this question. It purposefully equates vaccines that used fetal cells in some form with uncontroversial drugs that most religious people take without any concern.

Other supplemental forms ask employees to go further than attesting to statements written to exclude religious staff members.

The Department of Social and Health Services demands staff explain how the COVID vaccine conflicts with their religious beliefs. They must also explain how long they held the religious beliefs and detail why they don’t apply to other medicines.

Staff will also face questions from HR personnel who have no training in religion.

Staff have to prove their faith

The question of taking medications is meant to narrow down the number of people who would be eligible.

“The purpose of this question is to understand whether there was a history of declining medical treatment or vaccination based on an applicant’s religious belief,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

But the staff will still face deeper questioning.

Faulk confirms that, depending on the answers provided by staff, “HR professionals would engage in follow up questions to better understand the person’s history, such as demonstrating changes they have made as an adult based on those beliefs. We understand people’s religious views may change over time.”

In other words, staff will be forced to defend their faith to someone in human resources.

Follow-up questions — or an interview — effectively assume the staff member seeking accommodations is lying. Why else would they have to face more personal questions? But Faulk disagrees.

“The follow-up questions and engagement process is not a reflection of an employee’s honesty,” he says. “It is rooted in our commitment to be interactive regarding the employee’s requests for an exemption and accommodation. The process contemplates appropriate details regarding how the religious belief prevents the employee from taking the vaccine. Human resources staff will consult with legal counsel, where necessary, to assess these requests.”

But it’s not rooted in a commitment to be interactive.

The email from Leathers shows it’s rooted in a commitment to be as narrow as possible, so they don’t have to grant religious exemptions.

Your faith will be judged by HR

HR representatives interviewing staff seeking a religious exemption will be the ultimate judge. If they do not think your faith is deep enough, you will be denied.

And you won’t have an easy time appealing the decision before the Oct. 18 deadline to be vaccinated.

“If an exemption is not approved, the appeal options depend on their circumstances. For many employees, their collective bargaining agreement provides for a grievance process,” Faulk explained. “For others not covered by a collective bargaining agreement but covered under civil service, they can file an appeal under the civil service rules.”

In finer print on the religious exemption forms, agencies warn the staff that even a request they believe could face rejection. The caveat to an exemption is that providing accommodations would not pose “undue hardship.”

But good luck to the state proving undue hardship. Most agencies can offer accommodations for their religious staff since most have worked from home for the last year and a half.

Asking for a legal challenge

First Liberty Institute attorney Stephanie Taub says the questions make the form especially “vulnerable” to a legal challenge.

Taub argues that the exemptions may not discriminate against different faiths, that the state must ensure it’s not treating any particular religion with hostility.

“They have to make sure that … in applying these exemptions and granting religious accommodations, you can’t discriminate between people of different faiths,” she told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “And it sounds like what these questions are calling for is they’re going to prefer some people with certain religious beliefs, for example, beliefs against any sort of medical care, over people with other religious beliefs. There are people that object to this particular vaccine but don’t have religious objections to other vaccines, for example. And so this is, on its face, … it looks like there’s some sort of discrimination that’s going on here.”

If you treat religions differently, Taub says you must show a compelling reason to do so.

Inslee needs a lesson in legal standards

Harmeet K. Dhillon thinks Inslee could use a lesson in constitutional law. She is a civil rights attorney and founder and CEO of the Center for American Liberty, and has taken a particular interest in the governor’s action.

“The scope of religious exemptions stems from constitutional and legal standards, not the whims and prejudices of public officials making it up on the fly,” Dhillon tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “The fact that the state has concocted this absurd and legally indefensible ‘standard’ designed to deter legitimate religious exemptions, in my opinion, is a clear violation of the First Amendment as well as established employment law.”

Dhillon notes that there is no case that claims a religious exemption is only available to those who have refused medicine as an adult. She suspects this will not end well for Inslee.

“I predict litigation will ensue as citizens are wrongfully denied bona fide religious exemptions, and the state will end up losing and paying the attorney fees of the plaintiffs,” she predicts. “Qualified immunity is also not available to government officials who violate clearly settled constitutional norms, and fake requirement certainly begs the question as to whether government officials are knowingly discriminating against people of faith in Washington state.”

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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Rantz: Email shows COVID religion exemption intentionally written to disqualify staff