‘Gotcha’ Questions on Pennsylvania Religious Exemption Forms: Attorney

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
October 7, 2021 Updated: October 7, 2021

Attorney Jeff Schott’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since President Joe Biden announced a mandate requiring vaccination or termination for health care workers and those who work for any company with more than 100 employees. In some cases, noncompliance with the order for a 100 percent vaccinated workforce will result in the loss of federal funds. This hits hospitals and nursing homes the hardest and many are now informing employees of new vaccination policies to meet the mandate.

Schott is a labor, patient’s rights, and civil rights attorney at the Scaringi Law Firm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve had multiple calls every day from people seeking religious exemptions from their employers,” Schott told The Epoch Times in a phone interview.

Typically, employees who have a religious reason for objecting to vaccinations fill out a form and are excused from the requirement. It’s been a simple process for decades.

Lately, more people have found religion and the religious exemption forms some companies are requiring have become more complicated.

“I’m seeing employers, after exemption requests are submitted, subject employees to sometimes harsh gotcha questioning by [the human resources department],” Schott said. It may be in the form of an interview or more questions through emails, with very short deadlines.

Hundreds of employees from hospital provider Wellspan Health gathered in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, on Monday to discuss the vaccination situation. Many were talking about Wellspan’s new religious exemption form. It morphed Monday from the usual six-page form to a new 14-pager, filled with invasive questions, including the following:

  • When did you first develop the religious belief that prevent you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?
  • Does your religion address fundamental issues, such as life or death, the meaning of life, or what happens when human beings die? If so, please describe those beliefs.
  • Does your religion feature a clergy or other religious leaders?
  • Describe the organization and structure (if any) related to your religion.
  • Do your religious beliefs require you to abstain from all vaccination or just COVID-19?
  • Do you belong to an organization related to this religion such as a church, synagogue, mosque, or similar religious organization? If so, provide the name, address and telephone number.

The form also requires verification from a third party that has personal knowledge about the applicant’s religious beliefs. This must come from a religious leader or another adult member of the religion that can attest to “sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent you from getting a COVID-19 vaccination.”

Signers of the Wellspan exemption form are reminded that COVID-19 vaccines do not contain microchips, nor do they alter your DNA or cause a recipient to become magnetized.

“Your refusal to undergo vaccination for COVID-19 could cause members of your household to suffer severe COVID-19 related illness or die,” the form warns.

“It’s an intrusive exercise of the employer and it is meant to play a game of gotcha,” Schott said. “The questions are designed to enable employer to determine the accuracy and legitimacy of employee’s beliefs, however they are written in such a way as to set the stage to harshly question an employee’s religion.”

Wellspan did not respond to requests for comment.

With the Wellspan exemption form and others Schott has seen, employees must first prove they sincerely practice the religion, they must prove the religion forbids vaccination.

But this may be harsher than the law allows.

“Article 1 Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution equates conscience with religion, putting it on the same level, due in large part to our Quaker background,” Schott said.

Here is how that section, written in 1776, addresses religious freedom: “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: