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Proving COVID-19 religious exemptions is up for interpretation, experts say

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That's why state and city administrators must review every exemption request to ensure that they are legitimate.

HONOLULU (KITV4) -- Many federal, state and local agencies are requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Those workers who choose not to can request a medical or religious exemption.

The religious exemption is really up to interpretation. People can show a diagnosis or lab result for a medical condition but religion and spiritual beliefs are sometimes not as visible or easy to see. That's why state and city administrators must review every exemption request to ensure that they are legitimate.

Both the state and the City and County of Honolulu have a Coronavirus vaccination mandate for employees. The latest numbers reveal slightly more than 600 city employees received a religious exemption, while 48 people were approved for both a medical and religious reason.

Within the city, Honolulu Ocean Safety has the highest number of exemption requests either for medical or religion at 31%, followed by Department of Environmental Services at just over 11% and Honolulu police at just under 10%.

“Whether or not religion actually has anything to say about COVID vaccinations is besides the point. People will interpret their religion however they see fit to support whatever position they take on an issue," Jay Sakashita, Leeward Community College religion professor, said.

The state’s Department of Human Resources Development reports 87 people requested an exemption when the vaccine mandate went into effect in mid-August but individual departments approve each request so it’s unclear how many were approved.

A representative from the department told KITV4 an employer must provide accommodation for an employee if it’s determined “a sincerely held religious belief prevents the employee from receiving a vaccination”.

The challenge is proving how sincere someone is with his or her beliefs.

“If a person says, the way I understand in my religious beliefs, I can’t do those things. To me, that’s very legitimate. They have a right to make that choice," Ramdas Lamb, UH Manoa religion professor, said.

Lamb says people who believe in Christian Science are cautious of things they consume or inject into their bodies.

“They don’t believe in vaccinations, they don’t believe in blood transfusions and things like that. They’re very restrictive as far as what any kind of medical, let’s say medical actions upon the body," Lamb said.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate is a common discussion Lamb has with his students during the pandemic.

“For those of us whose conscience is okay with getting vaccinated, we get vaccinated. I’ve been vaccinated. For those whose conscience says they shouldn’t, I respect them because they’re individuals too and they have just this right to their beliefs," Lamb said.

As the debate over COVID-19 vaccinations continues, faith and conscience will have a role in the decision making process.

KITV4 also asked city and state representatives what explanations they received from people when they request a religious exemption. Officials say that’s a personnel matter and that information can’t be disclosed.

UH Manoa religion professor Ramdas Lamb discusses COVID-19 and religious exemptions

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