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U.S. pastors, advocacy groups mobilize against COVID-19 vaccine mandates

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Oct 14 (Reuters) – From the surface, First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, Mississippi, may virtually be mistaken for a storage shed had been it not for the steeple.

From the modest constructing nonetheless, Shane Vaughn, the Pentecostal church’s pastor, has helped spearhead a web-based motion selling private religion as a manner round office COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

He posts kind letters for U.S. staff searching for spiritual exemptions which were downloaded from his web site round 40,000 instances, in keeping with a display shot of internet site visitors he shared with Reuters.

“This is the only way out,” stated Vaughn, 48, of the letters, which he makes obtainable without cost, that blend Biblical scripture with warnings to employers of authorized fallout if they’re disregarded.

As the Biden administration prepares a federal vaccine mandate and extra states and corporations impose them to assist speed up the pandemic’s finish, letter-writing efforts by spiritual leaders are being bolstered by authorized advocacy groups comparable to Liberty Counsel.

The group stated it has despatched greater than 100 letters to firms together with United Airlines Holdings Inc (UAL.O) and Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) vowing litigation in the event that they improperly reject spiritual exemption requests.

United spokeswoman Leslie Scott stated the airline acquired the letter but it surely had no affect on the corporate’s actions. Tyson didn’t touch upon the letter.

United stated about 2,000 of its 67,000 U.S. staff have requested spiritual or medical exemptions. Tyson stated solely a “small percentage” of its greater than 100,000 staff had requested spiritual or medical lodging forward of its Nov. 1 deadline.

U.S. employers are required by legislation to make affordable job adjustments to accommodate an individual’s spiritual beliefs, though they’ll search data to find out if the beliefs are spiritual in nature and “sincerely held.”

Many employers need regulators to offer steering for scrutinizing exemption requests to assist defend them from lawsuits alleging they had been wrongly denied, stated Roger King, of the HR Policy Association, a discussion board for giant firms.

While few organized religions oppose vaccines, in accordance analysis by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, U.S. legislation defines faith very broadly to incorporate unfamiliar perception methods with few adherents.

‘DEALING WITH THEM ON A MASS BASIS’

Employment attorneys stated kind letters taken off the web would possibly counsel an individual’s beliefs will not be honest, however it will be tough for an employer to find out that. Employers could possibly be on stronger authorized floor to reject exemption requests which can be primarily based on verifiable false statements concerning the vaccines, the attorneys stated.

“Religious exemption requests have over years been much more rare and now we’re dealing with them on a mass basis,” stated Kimberly Harding, an employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody, which advises firms.

Temple University Health System in Philadelphia, which employs 10,700 folks, has already acquired 180 spiritual exemption requests, a major enhance from what it normally will get for its annual flu shot requirement, stated John Lasky, the system’s chief human assets officer.

Some of the exemption request varieties included letter attachments that used related phrasing, which Lasky stated would possibly point out teaching, though he stated they weren’t a figuring out think about whether or not a request was granted.

What mattered was whether or not the individual may articulate how their beliefs prevented them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, comparable to in the event that they “tied it to eternal damnation,” Lasky stated.

In at the very least one case, an employer reversed its choice to disclaim a non secular exemption after receiving a letter from Liberty Counsel.

Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania advised a nursing pupil on Sept. 7 it was rejecting her request as a result of it was primarily based on a “factually incorrect” hyperlink between vaccines and aborted fetal cells, in keeping with correspondence disclosed by Liberty Counsel that redacted the coed’s title.

Per week later, Liberty Counsel despatched a seven-page letter to Lehigh citing well being officers in North Dakota and Louisiana who stated there was a hyperlink between the vaccines and fetal cells. The group demanded Lehigh both approve the coed’s request or face “prompt litigation.”

It permitted the request the following day. Lehigh didn’t reply to requests for remark.

A Vaughn letter turned up in one of many few profitable lawsuits against a vaccine mandate. Western Michigan University granted an exemption to a pupil athlete who used his letter however was nonetheless barred from faculty sports till the court docket intervened.

Harry Mihet, an lawyer with Liberty Counsel, stated the Christian group receives 1000’s of messages weekly from people claiming that they had an exemption request denied for improper causes. Those embody that the individual’s denomination endorsed the pictures or that the Pope was vaccinated, neither of which have bearing on a person’s beliefs.

“I think these employers run the risk of being tied up in litigation until kingdom come,” Mihet stated.

Vaughn, who served a three-year jail sentence for fraud and had a stint operating an auto dealership, stated he now spends 80% of his day serving to folks with employer requests for extra data, comparable to describing how an worker’s beliefs battle with a hospital’s vaccine coverage.

Vaughn is inspired by firms pushing again on his exemption letters. “They are making it more difficult and adding layers to the process,” he stated. “It’s proof it works.”

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

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Pastor Shane Vaughn delivers an address in Waveland, Mississippi, U.S., June 2, 2021 in this frame grab taken from a video. Picture taken June 2, 2021.  Shan Vaughn/Handout via REUTERS

Pastor Shane Vaughn poses for a photo in Naples, Florida, U.S., March 7, 2021. Picture taken March 7, 2021.  Shan Vaughn/Handout via REUTERS

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