At least 11 people who had been granted a religious exemption from a Washington state agency had those exemptions revoked, leaving the state workers mere days to get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to avoid losing their jobs.
“I feel like I have been almost betrayed in a way,” Brad Otto, who works for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), told FOX 13 News, “that I had this exemption, an accommodation granted and now it’s taken away.”
WA State Agency Retracts Religious Exemption
On Aug. 9, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that all state employees were required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment and set the vaccination deadline for Oct. 18, 2021. The governor’s requirements allow for a religious exemption, but set strict parameters around what that means. The order states:
Workers for State Agencies, Workers for operators of Educational Settings, and Health Care Providers are not required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 under this Order if they are unable to do so because of a disability or if the requirement to do so conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practice, or observance.
According to the order, people must not claim an exemption based on false or misleading information, nor on their own personal preferences. Moreover, agencies must document “that the request for an accommodation has been made and include a statement in the document explaining the way in which the requirements of this order conflict with the sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance of the individual.”
Even when the state does approve a religious exemption, that does not guarantee that an employee will be able to keep his or her job. After approving an exemption, agencies then evaluate whether or not they can accommodate that employee. Employers are required to evaluate each case individually and avoid “‘rubberstamping’ accommodation requests.”
DFW approved religious exemptions for Otto and 10 other employees before revoking those exemptions. Otto told FOX 13 that his exemption had been approved on Sept. 20 and that it was rescinded on Sept. 29. The department had granted him an accommodation allowing him to telework or, if he came into work, to wear a mask and social distance. The governor did not change the guidance during that time period, so it is unclear why officials changed their minds about the DFW employees.