Federal withdrawal from COVID shot not as clear as Democrats claim

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Lawsuits against Illinois for compulsory COVID-19 vaccination were piling up and the reason was clear: the leverage of legal claims of the healthcare conscience law act state by stating religious objections to shooting and appealing sanctions, including loss of employment, which is accompanied by denial.

Democrats who control the General Assembly got to work last month to change that, but have publicly avoided prosecution as the reason. They said their action had nothing to do with restricting religious freedom. Anyone fired from a job after rejecting the vaccination for religious reasons can take legal action under at least four different federal laws, they said.


“People will be able to claim a religious exemption long after this law comes into force …”, argued Senate Speaker Don Harmon, a sponsor of the change. “The religious exemption exists in federal law and is not affected by it.”

But constitutional experts question their accessibility. Civil rights law is at the center of religious objections to the vaccine, but it can present a high bar in the face of a deadly pandemic. Other laws cited by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s office – prohibiting discrimination in employment under the Americans with Disabilities Act or those protecting age or genetic information – would likely recognize no religious objection to COVID-19 vaccine, they say.

Another area of ​​scrutiny is the free exercise clause of the Constitution. It is the subject of cases in Maine and New York which call into question forced vaccination. Both are close to Supreme Court review.

The state’s Right to Conscience in Health Care Act, approved in 1978, has long been viewed as protection against repercussions against physicians who on moral grounds refuse to perform abortions.

The Democrats’ clarification, which has yet to be sent to Pritzker for his OK, would ensure that the law’s ban on sanctions for religious objections does not apply to the denial of the COVID-19 vaccine. Lawsuits in Illinois – only nine so far in which the state is a defendant and two involving private parties overseen by the state’s attorney general – are challenging penalties for inoculation rejection on the basis of the law of conscience.

But like Harmon, House Godfather, Representative Robyn Gabel, a Democrat from Evanston, has maintained a hands-off approach to the challenges of religious freedom.

“The amendment … (states) that nothing in this article is intended to affect any right or remedy under federal law …” Gabel said. “The religious accommodation exemption under federal law is still available to employees who have religious objections to vaccines. “

But the federal provisions have been interpreted restrictively. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion, said Nelson Tebbe, professor of law at Cornell University. But an employer is not required to comply if it can harm other employees – which could clearly mix with an unvaccinated coworker, he said.

As for the ADA, Tebbe said, “I don’t know if a religious objection qualifies as a handicap.”

Katherine Franke, professor of law at Columbia University in New York, whose areas of specialization include law and rights related to gender and sexuality and religion, noted that the question of whether a religious exemption would hold true under the Civil Rights Act has not been tested in court.

But it clearly excluded laws on age discrimination in employment and discrimination in genetic information, two federal laws cited as applicable by Pritzker’s office.

There could be better reception of exemptions in the free exercise clause, the influence of which has increased with the spread of COVID-19.

At a joint U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing late last month on vaccine requirements and accompanying employer accommodations, law professor Douglas Laycock and religion at the University of Virginia, said: Life presents compelling government interests.

And the Supreme Court of the United States gave its consent, as early as 1905 – “at least until our current political polarization,” Laycock added.

This toll is under close scrutiny in Maine and New York, where federal courts have so far upheld vaccination warrants for healthcare workers in New York City and workers in hospitals and homes. Maine Nursing Services without offering exceptions for religious exemptions.

In the Maine case, the United States Supreme Court rejected the emergency intervention. Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, appointed by former President Donald Trump, have advised caution in granting “extraordinary relief” in a one-of-a-kind case.

Religious claimants say, ‘If you can take alternative measures with respect to people who have medical reasons for not getting vaccinated – like wearing masks and getting tested – then you should be able to apply those measures to people as well. religious claimants, ”Tebbe said. .

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PA researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.

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Follow political writer John O’Connor on https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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Some COVID-19 vaccination lawsuits based on Illinois healthcare right to conscience law: https://bit.ly/2ZViieC

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This story has been updated to correct the fact that legal scholars question the accessibility of federal religious exemptions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, not that exemptions exist in federal law.

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