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Hundreds of FDNY members and other emergency responders packed the street outside Gracie Mansion to protest the vaccine mandate for city workers, Oct. 28, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

COVID Vaccine Religious Exemption Letters Show Battle of Faith vs. Science

Notes from clergy, obtained by THE CITY, range from citing “morality” to erroneous declarations that the vaccine causes COVID. City Hall is far behind in going through mandate-exemption requests from municipal workers. Meanwhile, the Omicron variant looms.

SHARE COVID Vaccine Religious Exemption Letters Show Battle of Faith vs. Science
SHARE COVID Vaccine Religious Exemption Letters Show Battle of Faith vs. Science

One letter writer cites the use of aborted fetal cells in medical research as a violation of their faith. 

Another quotes a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that says people should be left to their own counsel. Yet another letter writer wraps medical misinformation in a cloak of “religious belief.” 

These letters, obtained by THE CITY, are among the thousands of the notes that clergy members have given to city workers and nonprofit staffers contracted with the city to get out of the employee vaccine mandate put in place by the de Blasio administration. 

All told, some 12,000 municipal workers and an untold number of nonprofit employees have submitted religious or medical exemption letters, according to city records as of Nov. 11, the latest date available. 

A letter from a priest, written on behalf of a worker seeking an exemption from the vaccine mandate

Obtained by THE CITY

The letters flowed in as everyone from the pope to the prominent rabbis and imams has encouraged their followers to get the jabs. 

Meanwhile, the emergence of the Omicron variant has spurred Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency to ensure hospital bed availability in case of a spike in admissions and Mayor Bill de Blasio to urge New Yorkers to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

“I’m very troubled by religious exemptions,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “Our religion is predicated on the protection and preservation of health. Very clearly the Torah says choose life.” 

City Moving Slowly

The de Blasio administration has touted the mandate, noting it has pushed nearly 11,000 employees to get vaccinated since the Nov. 1 deadline. Over 94% of the close to 400,000 city workers were vaccinated as of early November. 

But the city has been slow to go through applications for religious and medical exemptions, with just 27% of all requests “processed so far,” according to city records. 

In total, 1,422 of the requests had been approved and 1,710 had been denied as of Nov. 28, said Mitch Schwartz, a City Hall spokesperson. He added that the city has not broken down the data between religious and medical requests. 

“These numbers are a snapshot in time — they are constantly moving as agencies process the requests,” Schwartz said. 

Hundreds of people demonstrated against vaccine mandates during a protest outside City Hall, Nov. 3, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By contrast, the Air Force had received 4,817 religious exemption requests but not granted a single one, as of Nov. 16. Other federal defense agencies have rarely granted religious exemptions for other vaccines. 

Some city agencies have been inundated with exemption requests, records show. 

In the NYPD, 6,170 officers filed exemption applications, 1,850 in the FDNY, 550 at the Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services, and 380 at the Department of Environmental Protection, according to city records.  

Staffers waiting for a response on their exemptions remain on the payroll and working while other anti-vaxxers who did not file exemption requests have been put on unpaid leave.

‘Religious Obligation to Morality’

THE CITY obtained several religious exemption requests filed by nonprofit employees contracted by the city. Those staffers — whose names were redacted — are also covered by the vaccine mandate. 

One letter by a priest cites the part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that says: “God willed that man should be in the hand of his own counsel.” 

The letter then notes the employee seeking the exemption is “exercising her faculty of reason while considering Church teachings founded upon Biblical revelation.” 

The unnamed staffer is “fulfilling her obligation to religious obligation to morality,” the letter contends. 

A pastor at Manhattan Baptist church wrote a letter on behalf of a congregant.

Obtained by THE CITY

Another letter, by a Manhattan-based Baptist pastor, says the church ministry does not support the mandate — and erroneously stated that the vaccine’s “ingredients… creates possibility of long-term adverse effects such as COVID-19.” 

“This goes against our religious belief and religious teaching,” the letter states without elaborating. 

Multiple studies throughout the world have shown the vaccine greatly reduces the likelihood of contracting COVID as well as the risks of hospitalization from serious ailments and death.

One evangelical Christian staffer’s religious exemption request cites the use of aborted fetal cells in some elements of vaccine testing and development. 

“Life is precious and the sanctity of life is at the core of all divine purpose,” the missive states. “The use of aborted human life at early stage of existence for scientific research violates my faith, beliefs, and biblical values.” 

‘One-Way Tickets to Hell’

Legal experts note that many common, over-the-counter drugs, from Tylenol to Tums, have similarly used decades-old fetal cell lines. 

To make a credible argument against the vaccine mandate, an employee would have to prove they do not take those drugs and many others, the legal experts said. 

Government agencies have a lot of leeway when it comes to enforcing a vaccine mandate, under case law. 

‘The chances of defeating the mandate are between slim and none.’

People have to prove that the mandate somehow targets their religion in order to be exempt from the requirement. 

“The chances of defeating the mandate are between slim and none — and slim is out of town,” said Manhattan-based lawyer Jerold Levine, who focuses on civil service and gun rights cases.

In the latest U.S. Supreme Court action on the matter, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected a filing by eight hospital staffers in Massachusetts seeking to block a vaccine mandate. Two similar cases by New York workers trying to overturn the government mandate are pending. 

Last month, a federal appeals panel upheld New York State’s vaccine mandate for health care workers. The three nurses unsuccessfully argued the mandate did not give enough latitude to people who argue their religious beliefs should exempt them. 

In court filings, the nurses argued that they “refused to buy one-way tickets to hell on the hysteria express.”

Meanwhile, a Nov. 28 ruling by a federal appellate court will allow 15 Department of Education employees whose religious exemption requests were denied to reapply. The court didn’t question the validity of the vaccine mandate, but found the way the DOE judged the requests to be legally lacking.

Assessing ‘Sincerely Held’ Beliefs

As for city employees, their religious and medical exemption applications are reviewed by each agency’s Equal Opportunity Commission officer and human resources staffer. 

If they reject the filing, city workers can appeal that decision to a panel composed of members from the Law Department, Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and New York City Commission on Human Rights. The Department of Health also participates in cases involving medical accommodation requests.

Staffers do not need to belong to a specific religious group but must prove they have “sincerely held” religious beliefs that go against the vaccine mandate. 

A nonprofit worker contracted with the city claimed a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.

Obtained by THE CITY

Religious exemptions are carved out under the federal Civil Rights Act signed into law in 1964. That law mandates employers give their employees “reasonable accommodation” for their faiths.

Nonprofits are handling the exemption requests in varying ways. Most have their human resources department decide, while others have put in place panels to review the requests. 

Some, though, are opting to accept every application in part because they don’t have the resources for potential court battles, according to Michelle Jackson, executive director for the Human Services Council, which represents 170 nonprofits in New York City.

“They don’t have the capacity to go back and forth,” she said.