The Froedtert Health network in Wisconsin has sent a clear message to employees claiming religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination: with an alternative to mRNA vaccines now available, get vaccinated or resign.
In an email to a Froedtert staff member obtained by WTMJ-TV, the health network’s COVID-19 Vaccine Religious Exemption Review Committee wrote, “Your original exemption submission and additional documentation you provided do not meet the criteria of explaining your sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, including the new Novavax vaccine.”
The religious exemption will not be upheld, despite additional comments provided that “related to opinions or non-factual information,” the committee added. If the staff member does not get a first dose by September 21, they will be “considered voluntarily resigned.”
The move by Froedtert, which is affiliated with the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, signals a blow to vaccine holdouts in the workplace, including healthcare providers, who have argued their religion prevents them from getting vaccinated.
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA-based, Novavax is protein-based. Those who requested religious exemptions to their work or school policies have often cited the use of fetal material in mRNA vaccines or in their development, though neither Novavax nor the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain fetal tissue or DNA. However, it has been reported that laboratory-replicated fetal cell lines, some originating from abortions decades ago, have been used in the testing of mRNA vaccines.
Dorit Reiss, PhD, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, who has researched religious exemptions from vaccines, told MedPage Today it was only a matter of time before some employers, including hospitals, started to enforce vaccination policies after Novavax was authorized for use in August.
“I’ve said publicly before that I think Novavax does change the situation in relation to arguments about cell lines,” she said. “This is the first I’ve heard of an employer actually moving on it.”
An emailed statement from Froedtert to MedPage Today said, in part, “This protein-based vaccination option eliminates conflicts for those staff with religious or medical exemptions caused by mRNA-based vaccines and other concerns. Since those staff are now eligible for a vaccination that does not conflict with their religious beliefs or medical situation, their exemption will expire.”
The health network said that the rule will affect less than 1% of their staff, and that “impacted employees” were given a chance to apply for another exemption before previous ones expired, noting they will uphold “valid medical exemptions and sincerely held religious exemptions.”
Reiss said of the many claims to back up religious exemptions she’s come across, the fetal cell line argument was perhaps the most common, partially because it might curry favor from pro-life judges. “If they can piggyback on the abortion debate, they’re more likely to win” in a dispute, she said. But other reasons, like the claim that some religions require blood to be free of contamination, have also been used.
Some vocal opponents of vaccine requirements may have anticipated the post-Novavax repercussions, and urged their followers to use other reasons to back up their religious objections, Reiss said.
For example, Cait Corrigan, a Boston University theology student behind a group called Students Against Mandates, posted an online outline to the group’s website with tips for “successful” religious exemption letters, writing, “Note you can write about aborted fetal tissue … but this is not enough! (You must talk about the issue of Blood in the vaccines, being made in the Image of God, etc.)” (MedPage Today could not confirm whether Corrigan is still a student at Boston University.)
But neither these types of arguments nor religious beliefs are likely to hold up in most courts, according to Reiss and other experts. “The standard for vaccine mandates in the workplace is, you can refuse an exemption if it’s an undue burden, like the burden of not having vaccinated employees at a hospital,” she said.
And though objections to vaccination itself may be sincere, “for most of them, I think it’s about safety concerns, many of them created by misinformation,” Reiss noted. “For most of them, the religion is a cover for that concern.”