Criticism mounts as 55 federal agencies track COVID vaccine religious exemption requests

“Your administration cannot use the power of the federal government to track the application of federal employees who have applied for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine," lawmakers led by Rep. Andy Biggs says.

Updated: February 14, 2022 - 11:26pm

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Fifty-five federal agencies have issued rule changes to track employees and others who request religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Critics of the tracking say the practice is discriminatory against people of faith.

Members of Congress also are weighing in, asking President Joe Biden to halt religious exemption tracking policies. One lawmaker introduced legislation to prohibit the practice.

“The federal government has no business to create a database of people who file religious exemptions,” Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman Mat Staver told The Center Square last month after it was initially reported that one federal agency was logging the exemptipn requests. “The only possible purpose this could have, is to first identity and then to discriminate against people of faith. Knowing who files for religious exemptions serves no legitimate or lawful purpose.”

Now that 55 agencies are tracking religious exemption requests, Staver compared it to a database used by Nazi Germany to track people of the Jewish faith.

"This database is what enabled Nazis to round up those targeted for ghettos and concentration camps," he said. "The federal government has started its own database on Americans of faith. We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot allow a federal database categorizing people by their religion or medical status. What possible good can be accomplished by these government lists? I cannot think of one.”

Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization, has filed multiple lawsuits over federal vaccine mandates. Nearly all 28,000 religious exemptions filed by those in the U.S. military were denied, Liberty Counsel discovered in a lawsuit it filed on behalf of Navy SEALs. State attorneys general and other groups also sued the Biden administration after an executive order was issued last September mandating that all federal employees and contractors receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment or to receive federal contracts.

Even though a federal judge in Texas recently halted the federal employee/contractor mandate, and litigation is ongoing, federal law requires religious and medical exemptions be considered. Initially, federal employees were required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021.

The U.S. General Services Administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued guidance to federal agencies about how to implement the COVID-19 vaccine requirement. It states that agencies “may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation” to those who request exemptions “because of a disability or because of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance,” and provides guidance on how to track exemption requests.

In response to a federal religious exemption tracking system, U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-South Carolina, introduced HR 6502, the “Religious Freedom Over Mandates Act.” The one-paragraph bill would “prohibit the use of federal funds for any system of records on religious accommodations with respect to any COVID–19 vaccination requirement.”

Twenty Republican members of Congress also wrote Biden demanding that the federal government not target or track those filing religious exemption requests.

“Your administration cannot use the power of the federal government to track the application of federal employees who have applied for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine,” they wrote. "From day one, your administration has displayed a consistent attitude of contempt towards Americans who prioritize faith in their lives. Your administration’s attempt to use the power of the federal government to single out Americans who object to the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds is inexcusable and must be withdrawn.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Alex Mooney of West Virginia, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mary Miller of Illinois, Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Ben Cline and Bob Good of Virginia.

“A majority of the notices do not explain how long the agency plans to store the data, why the agency needs to share the data between federal agencies or why the agency needs to keep the data beyond a decision to grant or deny an employee's religious accommodation request,” they argue. “Your administration has offered no valid justification for these intrusive databases that will only be used to target Americans who have refused a COVID-19 vaccine because of their religious convictions.”

The administration has yet to make any changes to such policies and hasn’t issued a statement in response.

Liberty Counsel Action published a list of the rule changes issued by each of the 55 federal agencies.

So far, they issued 57 rule changes that include tracking federal employees or applicants who request exemptions. Some are limited to COVID-19 vaccine exemptions; some track all exemptions, including those who seek not to work on the Sabbath or Sunday. Some agencies track information about visitors, job applicants or event participants.

All of the rule changes appear to have already gone into effect, with the exception of the U.S. Commerce Department’s, whose public comment period remains open through March 28.