Are House Republicans right introducing bill to prevent COVID religious exemption tracking?
- Republicans Ralph Norman and Ashley Hinson introduced the Religious Freedom Over Mandates Act on January 25, 2022, prohibiting federal funds from being used to track persons with religious exemptions from COVID vaccinations.
- According to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core, 10% of Americans believe getting the COVID vaccine goes against their religious beliefs, while 59% of Americans think “too many people are using religious beliefs as an excuse not to get vaccinated.”
- On January 13, 2022, the US Supreme Court ruled against Biden’s private sector vaccine mandate asserting “the mandate exceeded the Biden administration’s authority.”
- As of January 25, 2022, 210.7 million people have been vaccinated in the United States, meaning 63.5% fully vaccinated and 75.7% with one dose.
House Republicans recently introduced a bill to prevent the federal government from tracking information on individuals who request a religious exemption from federally mandated COVID vaccines. It is a response to the Pretrial Services Agency (PSA) announcing a system collecting 'personal religious information' of employees who have requested such an exemption.
According to the PSA, it will collect, store, and disseminate all collected employee religious exemption request information. For the record, the PSA's own website states it is 'responsible for gathering information about newly arrested defendants.' If filing for a religious exemption is not, at least for now, a federal crime, why is the agency involved at all?
This highlights the absurdity of vaccine mandates, to begin with. No person should even have to file for a religious exemption to avoid a forced medical decision that they or their primary physician does not decide to keep their job. This is especially true knowing what we now know about the COVID vaccines, that they may help mitigate severe symptoms but do little to prevent someone from contracting or transmitting the virus.
Tracking citizens' religious affiliation by the federal government is a recipe for misuse and abuse of power. One only needs to look back a few years when the IRS targeted conservative groups requesting tax-exempt status. The IRS clearly abused its power by, among other things, requesting lists of books and other reading materials of such groups. This bill would help avoid what would otherwise be a chilling effect over the First Amendment's clearly enshrined right to religious freedom.
The decision to take or refuse a vaccine isn't some existential civil rights question, as some members of the GOP would claim. Rather, they are a matter of public safety and one of the most effective tools we have for reducing deaths and hospitalizations. If someone has legitimate religious reasons for refraining from taking the vaccine, even though the overwhelming majority of faith leaders have endorsed them, they should have no problem with their employer taking note of it. Data protection and HIPAA laws would prevent the disclosure of this information to anyone, and whistleblower protections would prevent retribution. Given that, there is no conceivable reason for anyone to worry about this information being collected, making the bill completely unnecessary at a time when Congress has many other issues to address.
It's somewhat surprising that those who wish to claim a religious exemption from the vaccine don't want this to be recorded for practical reasons. Surely this would cut down on employers repeatedly asking if an employee is vaccinated, forcing them to make repeated explanations, which could be uncomfortable. An employer simply having a record of an employee's decision could alleviate this potentially annoying situation.
Finally, this is just another sad example of Republicans politicizing common-sense public health matters to score cheap points with the more extreme members of their base. Unfortunately, we've seen this behavior throughout the pandemic, and it hasn't helped control rates of infection and deaths, nor has it helped to unify the country in the face of a major health crisis.