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The Baffling Legal Standard Fueling Religious Objections to Vaccine Mandates

As anti-vax plaintiffs seek faith-based exemptions, the judicial system will renew its struggle to determine what beliefs are truly “sincerely held.”

A woman holds an American flag and prays at an anti-vaccine rally in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images
A woman holds an American flag and prays “in tongues,” according to the Pentecostal Christian belief, as anti-vaccination protesters gather near City Hall in Los Angeles.

As vaccine mandates begin to take effect, thousands of Americans are scrambling to get religion. For those who oppose vaccination, a “sincerely held religious belief” might be the only way to avoid getting the shot—or losing their job. Online, one can find dozens of official-looking forms, letter templates, and tips on how to explain why your anti-vaccination beliefs are both sincere and religious. Some people are even attempting to turn the exemption business into a lucrative side hustle. Leaders of many major religious organizations and denominations have released statements supporting vaccination and clarifying that their teachings, official and unofficial, do not oppose vaccination. But some are offering “exemption letters” to parishioners who want a minister’s religious authority backing them up.

Soon enough, the courts likely will have to start sorting out this chaotic mess.  But whether or not an opponent of vaccination has a letter from a pastor or can cite long-standing religious doctrine to back up their claim won’t necessarily matter. While an endorsement from a religious group or a commitment to religious orthodoxy certainly can help someone get recognized as sincere and religious, as far as the legal system is concerned, those factors are not necessary. Religious beliefs are for individuals to hold—sincerely.

It is a strange standard. To be a sincere believer in the United States—that is, to be recognized by the law as truly religious and thus deserving exemption and accommodation and protection—one does not have to be “traditionally” religious. You don’t have to belong to a church. And if you do, you don’t have to agree with that church’s leaders or its official teachings or the person sitting next to you. You don’t even have to believe in a god.

So, why is “sincerely held religious belief” the standard for exemption? The circuitous legal history of this idea can be traced to the mid-twentieth century. The first key case was U.S. v. Ballard, in 1944. Leaders of a movement called the “I AM” movement were arrested for fraud, since their religious literature solicited donations and made claims that were not true (including, notably, that their founder, who died in 1939, was immortal). The Supreme Court decided that it was a messy business wading into theological matters. It was not the place for a secular court to say whether religious beliefs were true. Instead, it would test only whether the claimants sincerely believed them.

What about beliefs that are not traditionally religious? When is a belief religious, as opposed to philosophical or political or something else? Judges, bureaucrats, and others have had to answer and reanswer those questions on a case-by-case basis for generations. Since the 1960s, most claimants have received a lot of leeway, and the “religious” has become a quite capacious category.

U.S. v. Seeger was a pivotal case. In that 1965 case, the Supreme Court decided that a religious belief, even if it was unorthodox and nontheistic, was genuinely religious if it occupied “a place parallel” to that of a traditional believer. According to this theory, everyone is or at least has the capacity to be religious—and religious beliefs are not about their content so much as how they are believed—deeply, sincerely, religiously.

The Seeger case helps explain not only why “religious” can be such a broad category but also why it is essentially a matter of individual belief. It was one of many cases involving conscientious objection—best known as the claims made by individuals to a right to refuse to perform military service on religious grounds—that found their way into the courts from the 1940s through early 1970s. Prior to 1940, to become a conscientious objector in the U.S., one had to belong to a “historic peace church” such as the Quakers or Mennonites. But in 1940, Congress changed the requirement, so that war resisters were only required to object based on “religious training and belief.”

After a number of vexing cases, Congress attempted to clarify the requirement in 1948. “Religious training and belief” meant “an individual’s belief in relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.” In short, religious beliefs were a special kind of belief, separate from the realm of politics and economy, having something to do with a “Supreme Being.” And while they are to be held by individual believers, they are not “merely personal.”

If that clarification does not seem particularly clear to you, you’re not alone. The whole draft system, from local boards to the federal judiciary, struggled to interpret and apply this statute. Eventually, in Seeger, a test case reached the Supreme Court. Daniel Seeger did not believe in a Supreme Being and did not belong to a church. But he had what he called a “religious belief in a purely ethical creed.” It was religious not because it was about a god or related to denominational teachings but because it was not a political opinion or sociological conclusion, nor was it some idiosyncratic “merely personal” idea. It was sincere and deep. The court considered this carefully. They admitted that the “Supreme Being” requirement, if it were interpreted strictly, would exclude lots of authentically religious believers, like Buddhists. Taking as generous an interpretation as they could, the court unanimously decided that Seeger’s beliefs were indeed religious.

When people apply for a religious exemption from a Covid-19 vaccine, they are stepping into a legal world shaped by Seeger. Even though that case was technically just about interpreting the draft act, it quickly began to influence religious freedom in many other arenas. For example, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission evaluates these kinds of claims, it uses ideas and language derived from Seeger.

With the rapid rise in requests for vaccine exemptions, many people are realizing for the first time just how flexible these standards can be. When an employee sends you a letter claiming that their religious belief prevents them from receiving a vaccine, what do you do? If you are a school administrator and a parent writes a letter, perhaps co-signed by a pastor, stating that their child cannot wear a mask due to their sincere beliefs, how can you respond? What mechanisms are there to determine whether these are bona fide religious claims or whether the claimants are truly sincere?

The answer, until now, tended to be that anything goes. Most employers and government bodies give claimants the benefit of the doubt and find them to be sincere and religious. That does not mean that every sincere belief is accommodated, however. Businesses must make only “reasonable accommodations,” and thus they can deny a claim if doing so would cause a significant burden to them. In governmental settings, sincere belief will get you further, but there are still questions about how to balance the “compelling interest” of the government (in people having health care, for example) and the importance of religious freedom. How does that calculus change when a large number of people request the same exemption—and when those exemptions, especially in great numbers, pose public health risks?

Vaccine exemptions are a stark case of what legal scholars call “third-party harm.” Typically, a religious exemption or accommodation affects only a believer and the state. A prison bans facial hair, but an incarcerated Muslim man wants to grow a short beard as an expression of his faith and devotion. A state law requires formal education until age 16, but an Amish child’s religious and family life necessitate otherwise. Cases like these do not really affect anyone else. It’s a different matter if, for instance, a person’s religious belief compels them to violate anti-discrimination laws, deny services to LGBTQ people, misgender their students, or potentially spread a deadly virus.

The pandemic has exposed many Americans’ lack of conception of or belief in the common good: the inability or unwillingness to think of “freedom” as anything other than something each individual must shore up and maximize for themselves in a zero-sum game. These beliefs are not anathema to U.S. religion. In fact, for many, there is a theology at the core of their view of freedom, responsibility, and society. It is no coincidence that “sincerely held religious belief” has become so prominent in recent years. It names a distinctly American way of being free and being religious: as an individual, unsystematically, and without regard for others.

Thousands of people have already filed for exemptions and, in the coming weeks and months, thousands more will follow. Will their strategies work? No one seems to know for sure. A labor attorney told CBS that simply saying “I believe in God, I can’t get vaccinated” is not sufficient: “There has got to be some kind of explanation that’s better than that,” she said.

That is probably true. But what’s a “better” explanation? If someone cites biblical passages as the source of their sincere belief that they should not wear a mask or receive a vaccine—and they certainly appear to believe—how can we say they are not both religious and sincere? Some scholars have speculated that “false religious claims” will proliferate. The whole point of “sincerely held religious belief,” since at least the 1944 Ballard case, is that the state will not decide whether a religious belief is false. So “false religious claims” are not claims that aren’t true but rather claims that aren’t truly religious. Again, these are tricky waters to navigate, because these are not tests of orthodoxyor even coherence or consistency.

Who will receive exemptions? It’s useful to think about it from the perspective of a claimant. Instead of asking how you would evaluate such a claim, think about how you would make one. Would you know which words to use, how to craft your argument, which court cases to cite and how to cite them? Do you know someone who could help you?

How these questions get answered makes a big difference. Daniel Seeger, the conscientious objector who was found to be sincere and religious despite his lack of religious affiliation or belief in god, had a lot of help. The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, as well as the American Friends Service Committee (where Seeger was employed by the time his case made it to the Supreme Court), helped Seeger through his case from the very start. He had the best lawyers in the country. He cited theologians and spoke eloquently about his “religious belief in a purely ethical creed.”

The many government agents involved in his case found him to be a sympathetic figure. But many conscientious objectors who had similar beliefs did not fare so well. This was especially true of Black objectors, whom the peace movement and draft counselors tended to ignore, and whom the draft boards often saw as political (because of their commitment to civil rights) rather than religious.

U.S. religious freedom law tends to favor white Protestants. Claimants whose religions do not fit cleanly into the framework of sincere individual belief—such as Native Americans attempting to protect their sacred lands—have a hard time winning religious freedom cases. White Protestants have set the terms not only for what religion looks like but what it is about. Beliefs about sex and gender are rarely challenged as “false religious claims” because most people assume that religion is about sex and gender in a way that it is not about race or politics or giving water to migrants. Evangelical Protestants (and some Catholics) also have access to the same sort of help that Seeger had: specialized lawyers willing to take a case. Conservative Christian legal organizations, such as Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom, have worked for years to reshape religious freedom law in favor of their clients.

It is not clear how effective most people will be in their quest for a religious exemption to vaccination. On the one hand, if someone cites biblical passages as the source of their sincere belief that they should not wear a mask or receive a vaccine—and they certainly appear to believe—how can we say they are not both religious and sincere? On the other, though, if someone’s citations make no sense, if they can’t give a coherent or consistent explanation to their employer, if they copied and pasted some exemption letter from a Facebook page run by Russian bots, will the EEOC or the courts really judge them favorably? Maybe.

Receiving a religious exemption requires legibility, and that takes some skill. You have to be sincere and clear, not too “out there,” not too political. You must speak from the heart as an individual. Hundreds of employees submitting the exact same letter at the same time are unlikely to succeed. If anyone is successful, it will be those with resources, those whose style of religious belief and performance is recognizable and normative. In other words, those who already fit the accepted model of the sincere religious believer.