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Data shows that more federal government employees were exempt from COVID-19 vaccinations for religious reasons than for medical reasons

OTTAWA — More federal officials have opted out of the government’s COVID-19 immunization mandate for religious reasons than for medical reasons, according to new data from 55 departments and agencies.

Figures show that as of March 14, only a fraction of government employees in these organizations have been granted exemptions from mandatory vaccinations that were introduced last fall. More than 3,000 of more than 319,000 employees applied for exemptions.

This included 2,040 workers who requested religious exemptions and 1,184 who requested an opt-out for medical reasons.

540 people were granted religious exemptions, while 357 workers received medical exemptions.

A Star analysis of the data found a similar proportion of exemption requests and approvals for all organizations included in the press release.

The data was released by the House of Commons on May 17 in response to a question from Conservative MP Pat Kelly.

Timothy Caulfield, the Canadian research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said the small number of exemptions in federal civil service represents a “gain in public science communication,” though he worries some staffers are requesting religious exemptions may have opposed vaccination out of personal conviction rather than out of sincere religious conviction.

“Having a strong opinion on vaccines is not a religious position. Having an ideological position against vaccines is not a religious position,” Caulfield said.

“It really has to be something that’s a sincere belief that’s connected to your beliefs, it’s connected to your religion. It’s not just that you don’t believe in vaccines.”

According to the Federal Ministry of Finance, applications for exemption are checked “on a case-by-case basis” by an employee department. Workers could also be penalized or fired if they provided false information on their vaccination waiver requests.

To receive a religious exemption, an employee had to “prove a genuine individual belief rooted in the religion, not whether the belief was recognized by other members of the same religion,” Treasury Department spokeswoman Barb Couperus told the Star by email.

“It had to be a religious belief (not a personal moral belief) and the request had to explain the nature of the belief and why it prevents vaccination against COVID-19.”

James Fu, a Toronto employment attorney at law firm Borden Ladner Gervais, said it was no surprise that more federal employees were receiving religious exemptions. That’s because it should be assumed that the number of Therapeutic Use Exemptions is fairly small given the narrow limits on which they can be granted, Fu said.

For example, the Ontario Department of Health lists only two pre-existing conditions that qualify for a medical exemption: if someone has recently had myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — or has documented severe allergic reactions to a component of a COVID-19 vaccine.

But Fu said the religious exemption should also be granted in “relatively rare” circumstances. He pointed to a report by Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the United States showing how major religions – including Buddhism, Islam, major Christian denominations, Hinduism and Judaism – generally condone vaccination, while only a few, smaller Christian sects do make a “theological objection” to them.

These include some Dutch Reformed churches and “faith-healing” denominations such as Endtime Ministries and Church of the First Born.

Noting that more than half of federal employees who requested religious exemptions were denied, Fu said the government likely has a “robust system” in place for determining whether the request is linked to genuine religious belief.

For Caulfield, the key is not setting a precedent where such an exemption becomes a way for anti-vaccination evaders to shirk public health responsibilities.

“There are reasons to be cautious about not applying this exemption rigorously,” he said.

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