Prove it, hospital asks unvaccinated employees claiming religious exemption

An attestation form from Conway (Ark.) Regional Health System asks employees requesting a religious exemption from the hospital's COVID-19 vaccine mandate to confirm they will not use certain everyday medications, such as Benadryl, Sudafed and Tylenol, in alignment with their sincerely held religious belief.

On Aug. 12, Conway Regional, which includes Conway Regional Medical Center, announced its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees, with accommodations for medical and religious exemptions. The hospital said employees requesting a medical and/or religious exemption must complete an exemption request form, and its COVID-19 vaccine exemption request policy is similar to the one it has for the flu vaccine.

Matt Troup, president and CEO of Conway Regional Health System, told Becker's that hospital officials began receiving exemption requests for the COVID-19 vaccine and noted an increase in requests citing the use of fetal cell lines to develop and test the vaccines. 

"This was significantly disproportionate to what we've seen with the influenza vaccine. Thus, we provided a religious attestation form for those individuals requesting a religious exemption," he said. "The intent of the religious attestation form is twofold: to ensure staff requesting exemption are sincere in their beliefs and to educate staff who might have requested an exemption without understanding the full scope of how fetal cells are used in testing and development in common medicines."

Conway Regional said the form also aims to notify employees of the requirements for compliance for an exemption, including signing the attestation form confirming their sincerely held belief, being subject to periodic COVID-19 testing, and possible reassignment to another position to mitigate risk to patients and staff.

The form lists 30 medications and asks employees to "truthfully acknowledge and affirm that my sincerely held religious belief is consistent and true and I do not use or will use any of the medications listed as examples or any other medication … that has used fetal cell lines in their development and/or testing." 

Few religions outright reject vaccinations, but some religious groups have raised the issue of vaccines being developed and tested on fetal cell lines, which are grown in labs based on aborted fetal cells, according to 9News, which spoke with an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.  

"I understand why people have concerns," James Lawler, MD, the expert, who is a practicing Catholic, told the news station. "The bottom line is almost all the medical products we use have in some way been touched by research that's been done on fetal cell lines."

Mr. Troup said the purpose of the form is to be educational and "provide information on other commonly used medications that may go against a sincerely held religious belief."

If someone declines to sign the form, he said their religious exemption is approved on a provisional basis, and the employee may be asked to sign the form at a later date.

He said several employees seeking a religious exemption have signed the attestation, but for those who do not, Conway Regional deems that, amid the circumstances of the pandemic, it is not able to accommodate some exemption requests in the future. 

"Part of our intent in granting a provisional exemption is to let staff know that we may not be able to extend this provisional status indefinitely. Any steps taken will be consistent with [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] guidelines," said Mr. Troup.

Conway Regional's vaccine requirement deadline for employees is Oct. 8.  The health system has about 1,830 employees, and as of Sept. 14, about 5 percent had requested a religious or medical exemption. 

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