See more of the story

A recent post on Kate Lincoln's neighborhood website caught her by surprise. A neighbor had written "Need a vaccine exemption? … Holy Trinity Church in South St. Paul is helpful."

Lincoln called the church and left a message inquiring about the exemption. Her call was returned by a woman who confirmed that the church had a letter for requesting the exemption from employers. The church staffer even read her the letter, said Lincoln, who was outraged.

"I have no issue with people getting a religious exemption if it's legitimate, but it seems like they were just giving it out to anyone," said Lincoln, of St. Paul.

As a growing number of public and private employers issue vaccine mandates for workers or guests, many Americans are exploring religious exemptions to the rules. Such exemptions can be given if the vaccine violates sincerely held religious beliefs.

But there are no specific requirements or proof, or even standardized application forms, putting employers in an often difficult position of determining if the request is legitimate.

"There are certainly sincere objections to the COVID vaccines … but we know that some people are being encouraged to characterize their objections as religious, whatever the actual basis is," said Thomas Berg, a professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas. "We know there are boilerplate exemption forms circulating online."

It's unclear whether Holy Trinity Church was actively promoting the exemptions, or simply facilitating exemption requests for those who asked. Its senior pastor, Rev. John Paul Echert declined to comment on the issue. His associate pastor is the Rev. Robert Altier, a well-known priest who last year was reprimanded by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for telling parishioners that they've been "lied to" about the seriousness of COVID-19 and that he wouldn't take a vaccine unless "they force it upon me."

St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda has discouraged clergy from writing the appeals, noting that vaccine exemptions don't require clergy certification.

"It's an individual and personal decision whether to receive a COVID vaccine," Hebda wrote in a statement to area Catholics, noting that Catholic Church teachings say the vaccines are morally acceptable.

Pope Francis, for example, called getting a vaccine "a simple and profound way of promoting the common good." Leaders in most of the major religious traditions, including Muslims and Jews, also have encouraged members to be vaccinated. That complicates the exemption argument that the vaccine violates a specific religion.

Religious exemptions are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religious beliefs or moral convictions. It requires employers to accommodate someone's "sincerely held" religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would create undue hardship on the employer.

Individuals seeking exemptions typically provide written explanation to their employer about why the vaccine violates their religious convictions, and provide any other documentation required. Human services staff, at workplaces ranging from airlines to health care facilities to restaurants, review the requests and determine validity.

But their decisions are increasingly challenged. For example, nearly 200 Minnesota health care workers last month filed a federal lawsuit to stop enforcement of their employers' vaccine mandates. A federal judge denied the request for an injunction this week, in part because nearly all had received exemption, and most for religious exemptions.

In another decision last week, a federal judge ruled that New York state must allow employers to grant religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate for health care workers while a lawsuit challenging them makes it way through court. Conversely a federal judge ruled that Maine could prohibit religious exemptions for its health care workers.

Determining the scope and use of religious exemptions for COVID vaccines in Minnesota and the nation is difficult, as there is no central authority that oversees them or monitors the requests. Neither the Minnesota Department of Health nor the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce tracks such data.

There is a state health department process and form for contesting school and child care immunization laws, but it doesn't apply to COVID-19 vaccines because they weren't included when the law was written, said health department spokesman Scott Smith.

The archdiocese — representing the largest single faith tradition in Minnesota — doesn't track exemptions, but acknowledges it has been receiving inquires from clergy about how to handle requests for them. The archdiocese reminds them of the Catholic Church's position on the vaccine.

"I know priests have responded in a variety of ways," said the Rev. Michael Tix, archdiocese vicar for clergy and parish services. "I am aware that a few priests have written letters of support for parishioners seeking exemptions."

One of the key reasons cited for opposing the vaccine is that at least one vaccine was developed using fetal cell lines, cells grown in a laboratory that originated from an abortion many decades ago. An evangelical law firm based in Florida called Liberty Counsel, a national leader in litigating and facilitating exemptions, offers this wording to use in a sample exemption request form it offers online.

"I have prayed about how to respond to the COVID shot directive … in light of my pro-life and other religious beliefs," the sample letter reads. "I believe my body belongs to God and is the temple of his Holy Spirit. 1 Cor 6:19-20 … My faith prohibits me from participating in or benefiting from an abortion, no matter how remote in time that abortion occurred."

But these cell lines also have been used to develop dozens of other pharmaceuticals, and at least one company is asking its exemption seekers if they also used any of those products. On its "religious exemption attestation" form, the Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas lists 21 of those drugs, including Tylenol, Tums and Ex-Lax, and asks applicants whether they've used them as a test of consistency.

"That shows the difficulty in testing sincerity," Berg said.

Americans are divided over whether individuals should get COVID vaccine exemptions. A survey by the Washington D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute earlier this year, found 52% supported offering religious exemptions and 46% opposed it.

Lincoln is among those who support it, but she is concerned that some religious exemptions are based more on political ideology than faith. The public health threat of COVID-19 cannot be underestimated, she said.

"Someone's belief is not more important than protecting an entire unit of a nursing home," said Lincoln, referring to health care worker exemption requests.

Requests for exemptions are expected to increase, as more employers impose vaccine mandates and anti-vaccine groups step up their organizing efforts. The exemptions will continue to be a difficult issue for individuals, employers and courts.

"I see more litigation around the country," Berg said. "I see courts going in different directions, depending on the details of the mandate and on the court's own attitude. I'm generally a strong supporter of religious objections ... but this is a tough issue."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511