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caption: GOP State Rep. Jesse Young speaking at a One Washington event at Island Church on Bainbridge Island, Sept. 8, 2021.
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GOP State Rep. Jesse Young speaking at a One Washington event at Island Church on Bainbridge Island, Sept. 8, 2021.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

A religious group gives tips on avoiding the Covid-19 vaccine in Washington state

A group called One Washington is holding seminars around the state to instruct people on how to ask for a religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine.

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tate employees and health care workers are among those in Washington who will soon be required to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as a condition of their employment.

Although Covid-19 vaccines have proven to be effective at preventing illness or keeping it mild in breakthrough cases, a percentage of people are unwilling to get vaccinated. Washington state law provides an exception for people who have "sincerely held religious beliefs" that prevent them from getting the vaccine.

The group One Washington is holding seminars around the state to instruct people on how to apply for that exemption. The organizers are associated with a church in Gig Harbor called Harborview Fellowship. Early on in the pandemic, the church was in the news after it sued Washington state over emergency orders that prevented churches from holding in-person services.

After Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state would mandate vaccines for certain employees, One Washington organizers said they were inundated with people asking what to do. They began offering seminars in churches, and were soon drawing large crowds. In the past several weeks, they say they’ve reached thousands of people around Washington state and in Hawaii, as well.

Reasonable accommodation

One of these seminars took place on Wednesday at Island Church on Bainbridge Island. Roughly 100 people attended — surprising given the island’s liberal bent. No one except this reporter wore a mask at the indoor event, despite a recent uptick in coronavirus cases among unvaccinated people.

Much of the seminar was focused on civics, rather than religion.

State Rep. Jesse Young, a Republican from Pierce County, gave a lengthy presentation arguing the state's vaccine mandate is unconstitutional. He asserted the governor does not have the power to make laws (although the governor's emergency powers are contained in state law including in RCW 43.06.220. The governor's office says it has successfully defended itself against 17 challenges to its authority to act during the pandemic).

Young cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it unlawful to discriminate not just on the basis of race but of religion as well.

The law requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodation" to employees for their sincerely held religious beliefs, as long as they don't create an undue hardship on the employer.

One Washington borrows liberally from the language of the Civil Rights movement; they opened Wednesday's seminar with a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

They also use language from the abortion rights movement, including “my body, my choice.”

When it comes to mandating vaccines, "people on the other side have conveniently forgotten they said that," said Mike Jonez, a volunteer chaplain for the Washington State Patrol who co-founded One Washington.

Jonez also denied the group is pursuing an anti-vaccine agenda.

"We are pro freedom of choice," he said.

Public health experts counter that a number of commonly-accepted practices require people to do things in the name of the community's safety. For example, it’s against the law to drive your car while you are drunk.

"Religion is like a black box"

Many Christian leaders have urged their congregations to be vaccinated, including those in the Catholic Church. The Pope called getting the vaccine an "act of love" and suggested that it's a moral and ethical obligation. Evangelical Christians are an outlier, though, and have higher rates of not being vaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

One Washington's seminar gave general guidance on applying for a religious exemption, from how to fill out forms from your human resources department, to finding out what reasonable accommodations your employer provides.

They warned people not to fall into any "potentially trapping questions," like whether you have taken medicine or vaccines before. They claim you do not have to "prove" your religion to get an exemption.

"Religion is like a black box," Jonez said. "You just have to have it. You don't need to show it."

The organizers played a video of a woman named Michelle who they said had successfully applied for a religious exemption.

In the video, Michelle suggested that people not use the argument that they oppose the vaccines because fetal cells may have been used in their development, because that might change with future vaccines.

In her application, Michelle quoted the Bible: “My physical body is a holy temple of my Lord Christ and Savior." She went on to write: "I will not put anything into my body that would violate my religion or my conscience before God.”

Finally, the presenters asked people to make a proclamation of faith by inviting Jesus into their lives. They then provided a QR code that would allow them to download a letter from the church with an "affirmation of faith."

It’s unclear whether this approach will work.

Every employer has its own process for religious accommodations. The state of Washington’s religious exemption request form asks employees to assert two things:

  1. That that you have a sincerely held religious belief or religious conviction that prevents you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and
  2. That you have never received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult.

These questions present a high bar, and few Christians, other than Christian Scientists, would likely qualify under this standard.