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Fate uncertain for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates

Objections center on use of decades-old fetal cell lines in testing of some products, a process used in a host of medications.

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Protesters march through downtown Rochester to demonstrate against vaccine mandates Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Mayo Clinic is requiring employees who are not exempt for medical or religious reasons to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by January of 2022. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

ROCHESTER, Minn. — A lawyer representing more than 100 Mayo Clinic employees seeking religious exemptions to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination believes the health care industry will soon face lawsuits for denial of such requests.

In late September, Minneapolis attorney Gregory Erickson filed a suit against a collection of large providers on behalf of 200 anonymous health care employees. The goal was to block vaccine mandates within hospitals, but U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Brasel declined to take that step. Erickson said most of those suing were by then granted religious or medical exemptions from their employers, placing the lawsuit on hold.

Employees can file an application for religious exemption with their employer, which employers can then reject — but that opens the employer to being sued for religious discrimination.

Now he has 300 clients — 100 of which are Mayo employees. Erickson believes there are currently thousands of requests for religious exemptions that have been honored statewide.

"In my experience that number is in the hundreds," he said, "and I represent a tiny fraction of employees in the state of Minnesota." Of the 100 Mayo employees he now represents, Erickson says that, "they have retained me in the event that their employer turns down their request for a religious exemption."

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"Mayo Clinic recognizes that some employees have deeply held religious beliefs and medical reasons that will lead them to seek exemption from COVID-19 vaccination," Mayo spokesperson Kelley Luckstein said in a statement.

"In compliance with established laws, Mayo is offering employees the option to request a medical or religious accommodation. Employees have started submitting medical and religious exemption requests, some of which have been approved."

Religious objections cite fetal cell lines

Erickson anchors the religious opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine in the use of decades-old fetal cell lines during testing.

"A lot of the Christian and Catholic type employees have a major objection to the fact that the vaccines are created with the use of fetal cells, and they don't feel comfortable putting something in their body that's associated with abortion," Erickson explained. He says he was vaccinated for the coronavirus.

The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioTech and Moderna do not contain cells from fetal tissue, or use such cells in their production.

Some original tests of the products were conducted with fetal cell lines isolated decades earlier, according to the Lozier Institute , an anti-abortion policy organization which has deemed the vaccines to be ethically uncontroversial.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also deemed the vaccines to be "very remote from ... abortion," stating that “one may receive any of the clinically recommended vaccines in good conscience with the assurance that reception of such vaccines does not involve immoral cooperation in abortion.”

Erickson says individual conscience can supersede creed.

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"People's relationship with God is their own relationship between them and their creator," he said. "What a church leader says on a particular topic is not binding."

A host of common over-the-counter products are created with similar dependency on fetal cell lines, however, leading those claiming religious exemption to face the charge of philosophical inconsistency.

"That's a really silly position," Erickson says. "It's not like when you buy Tylenol or Advil that you look on the label and it says ... 'this is created with the use of fetal cells.'

"Now that the folks know the products that are associated with these cells, they are not using them," he added, "and they haven't been using them for quite some time."

Erickson takes a similar position with regard to the medical inconsistency of opposing COVID-19 vaccines after having been previously vaccinated for other diseases with products tested with fetal cell lines.

"None of these folks had any idea until the COVID vaccine came around that that's how these vaccines were made," he said, "because nobody cared."

For Stephen Befort, professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, the hurdle faced by those claiming religious exemption to mandatory vaccination is likely to be the lack of a remedy for the need within hospitals to maintain a safe environment.

"If we're dealing with health care provider employees and the hospital is requiring vaccination, I think the court will take into consideration the public safety needs," he said.

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"The counter argument would be if there's a constitutional religious reason to refuse, then you shouldn't be balancing at all ... But I think courts are going to want to consider the practical ramifications, and the impact on the public good."

"I think there are going to be lawsuits about this," he said. "I think we'll get definitive rulings and that will be helpful. I think it's quite likely that employers will be sort of lenient on religious objections, unless they are in a public safety kind of place, like a hospital."

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