August 30, 2021
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee does not want to grant any religious exemptions for his vaccine mandate, and his office isn’t afraid to hide it. The rules appear so extreme that affected staff are unlikely to receive a religious exemption if a doctor or nurse has ever given them ibuprofen.
Inslee ordered all state employees, health-care workers including firefighters, and both public and private school staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID by October 18 regardless of age, risk factors, or previous COVID diagnosis. If they are not injected by the deadline, Inslee vows to fire them. What’s worse, Washingtonians would not likely be eligible for unemployment benefits if fired for not getting vaccinated.
The only ways out of the mandate are via medical or religious exemptions. Inslee’s staff knew there would be resistance, and his staff grew concerned that employees would feign religious objections to be exempt. While a medical exemption would require a doctor’s sign-off, religious exemptions were more challenging to control. So they concocted a plan.
I obtained a leaked email sent from Kathryn Leathers, general counsel for the Office of the Governor. On August 3, Leathers and staff representing the governor and the attorney general discussed the vaccine mandate.
“Exemptions: medical for sure; and religious (if we have to; if yes, as narrow as possible),” Leathers wrote. Calling the resulting religious exemption “narrow” is an understatement. It is so narrow that it appears to disqualify almost anyone who would apply.
While each department uses its own forms, there is a common question popping up. Staff are asked whether “You affirm/agree that you have never received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult.”
The Washington departments of labor and health, for example, ask employees how long they’ve held their religious beliefs and to explain why the COVID vaccine is problematic, but not other vaccines they may have received. The implication that taking allergy medicine or sleeping pills somehow conflicts with one’s religious objection to a vaccine that uses aborted fetal cells is bizarre. Also, of course, plenty of people have religious objections to specific medicines and vaccines or even medical procedures.
Employees desiring an exemption also don’t have much time to be approved. They must be fully vaccinated by October 18. That means the latest they could get the first dose of Moderna is September 6, Pfizer by September 13, and Johnson and Johnson by October 4. The appeals process if an employee is denied, which would be governed by various union rules, is unlikely to be finished by the deadline. Some employees have said their departments haven’t even presented their exemption forms yet.
Inslee’s office says you may have to talk with a representative from human resources. In the Issaquah School District, just 15 miles east of Seattle, HR representatives say a religious exemption form prompts an in-person meeting to discuss the request.
Being subjected to invasive questions about your religion—either on a form or with an HR professional with limited knowledge of faith—is inappropriate. But it does live up to the promise of being “as narrow as possible.”
Inslee’s office, however, sees nothing inappropriate with the questions or process. They claim they wanted to protect religious staff.
“The governor was concerned that people would inappropriately try to apply personal or philosophical objections to a religious exemption,” Inslee flack Mike Faulk told me. “It was important to the governor to make sure this was available to people with sincerely held religious beliefs.”
“And they’re trying to really limit it in a way which I think is problematic under the First Amendment,” he said. “So we’ll have to see if this effort succeeds or it’s challenged in court.”
It’s already facing a legal challenge. The Washington Federation of State Employees announced last Friday night that it is suing the governor for a “failure to bargain in good faith over the impacts of the vaccine mandate.”
An Inslee spokesperson called the allegation “false” in a statement to me, saying they “look forward to the opportunity to respond in court.” But other unions have made similar arguments, complaining that during impact bargaining meetings, state representatives often have no answers and progress isn’t made.
This issue will come to a head one way or another. It may force Inslee to commit to a mass firing or give up on the mandate because Washingtonians aren’t accepting the mandate. They are publicly speaking out at great risk to their careers.
First responders organized their resistance early. Firefighters and EMTs from Seattle and Spokane to Tacoma and Vashon Island were quick to say they won’t follow the mandates. So, too, were nurses who rallied in Bellingham. They argue that the “heavy hand” of a mandate is counterproductive.
They’re hardly alone. From a 22-year-veteran of the Washington State Patrol and a highly paid, mid-career elementary school teacher to a biologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation and a nurse of 25 years, employees are organizing. They say the mandate is wrong.
Not all of the resistance is over the religious exemption subterfuge, of course. Some don’t trust the vaccine yet. Others feel they don’t need it as otherwise healthy people or recovered COVID patients. Many think this is government overreach. In fact, a number of vaccinated employees simply refuse to turn over private medical paperwork to the state for fear that this takes away their freedoms.
It’s unlikely Inslee expected this level of pushback. In progressive Washington, it’s rare to see such bipartisan ire towards an Inslee policy. How will he respond? It may depend on whether the thousands of employees try to force Inslee’s hand.
We may not just see an erosion of medical autonomy but an historic mass firing. Alternatively, we may see Inslee back off with an excuse that enough people complied for him to rescind the order. The answer to this mystery is only weeks away.