For nearly two hours, they were riveted. More than 200 parents, health care workers, pastors, and others had come to this live online tutorial on a recent weeknight to learn how they could avoid getting a COVID-19 vaccination by claiming it violates their religious beliefs.
The instructor, a 24-year-old Boston University theology student who aspires to be a minister, has been hosting regular Zoom sessions on how to craft religious exemptions to the growing number of COVID vaccination mandates. Cait Corrigan says she receives hundreds of daily requests for help — up from about a hundred just a few weeks ago.
“There are thousands and thousands of people I have helped with religions exemptions,” Corrigan calmly assured the people who kept listening to her advice well past 11 p.m. “We are the majority and we have been silent.”
None of the major religions officially oppose vaccination, but that hasn’t stopped a growing cottage industry from helping people devise religious arguments to get out of taking a COVID-19 shot. Some try to link vaccine research to aborted fetal tissue, while others, including Corrigan, reference passages from the Bible that, they say, suggest vaccinations make “sacred” blood impure.
Now, in the wake of President Biden’s recent order mandating COVID shots for roughly 80 million Americans, the push to vaccinate has grown more fervent. So, too, has the pushback by people who insist the shots violate their religious beliefs.
“It started with a trickle earlier this year, maybe helping three or four people navigating mandates, but some days now we are getting 1,500 e-mails and our phone bank won’t stop ringing,” said Harry Mihet, chief litigation counsel at Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based evangelical organization that has filed lawsuits on behalf of people opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and COVID vaccines.
“As more and more people are having to deal with these mandates, the number of those opposed to them will increase, not because people are all of a sudden getting religious,” Mihet said, “but because they have to all of a sudden make decisions.”
Federal civil rights law requires companies to accommodate religious beliefs that are “sincerely held,” putting employers at risk of a lawsuit if they don’t make allowances for employees’ faith-based claims.
But determining sincerity in a country deeply divided over COVID mandates has become a tense exercise, a journey into uncharted territory. Employers and human resource officers are keenly aware of the growing number of lawsuits challenging mandatory shots.
A federal judge last month dismissed a lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts over its requirement that students be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus. One of the students had claimed a religious exemption, saying she is a Roman Catholic, yet acknowledged she received other vaccines in her late teenage years including flu shots.
But on Tuesday, another federal judge, this one in New York, temporarily blocked that state from forcing health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID after a group of workers sued because New York’s mandate did not allow religious exemptions.
Corporate squeamishness on the subject is apparently widespread; several companies and universities contacted by the Globe for this story declined to comment about their process for granting religious exemptions.
Others, such as State Street Corp., a Boston-based global financial services company with about 9,000 Massachusetts employees, provided only general statements. State Street requires employees to be vaccinated, but doesn’t ask questions if someone claims a religious exemption.
“We are not asking employees for any documentation [for exemptions] but reserve the right to do so,” read the State Street statement.
John Dooney, an adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management, said that before COVID, most companies rarely encountered requests for religious exemptions. Now, he said, the trade association for human resource leaders is receiving more calls seeking guidance on matters of faith, and is advising companies to be consistent, such as using a core group of reviewers, to ensure consistency in their decisions.
But Dooney also advises that each employee’s request be judged on its own merits.
“It can’t be everyone who is this religion gets this type of accommodation,” he said.
During Corrigan’s recent late-night Zoom session, attendees from New York, Ohio, and other states sought tips on how to best word their responses on religious exemption request forms from their employer.
Corrigan suggested attendees not answer questions about their religion on the forms. Instead, she recommended people write on the document “please see attached.”
“The forms, I strongly believe, are meant to trip you up, they ask you difficult questions,” Corrigan told the group. “Your employer, your school is trying to deny you, in many cases they are just trying to deny you.”
Nearly two hours into the session, several attendees still had questions. Corrigan, meanwhile, promised two more online teach-ins the next week. They typically run three hours and cost $25 per person.
Corrigan, who was home-schooled from the age of 8 until college, told the Globe that she has never been vaccinated. She describes her own faith as Christian, but strongly values Buddhist principles. She traces her passion for religion to a long line of ancestors who, she said, fought for religious freedoms. Her goal is to be ordained as a minister and go to law school.
“I am called to do this, to support people,” she said “And protect their right to bodily autonomy.”
Corrigan’s teachings don’t exactly mesh with the tenets of many religions that espouse an obligation to society, said Dr. Michael Grodin, an emeritus professor of health law, ethics and human rights at the Boston University School of Public Health. Grodin long taught a course on religious bioethics that examined the controversy inherent in major public health issues, including exemptions to mandatory vaccination.
“The notion of protection of life is critical to this discussion, and the risk to others and not just to ourselves,” Grodin said.
Most religions have no prohibition against vaccinations. A very few, such as Dutch Reformed Congregations and Faith Tabernacle, do have concerns, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center research. Christian Science, which teaches that disease can be cured or prevented by prayer, does not prohibit the shots.
“The church has made a point to let its members know there is no pressure or judgment for whether one chooses to vaccinate or not,” said Kevin Ness, a church spokesman. “Christian Scientists share a concern for public health and safety and remain mindful of the responsibility all citizens have to follow government requirements and respect the rights of others.”
Among those who object to the COVID vaccine, some cite misconstrued information linking the shots to abortion. During testing or development of the three COVID vaccines available in the United States, researchers essentially reproduced cells that were originally obtained in the 1970s and 1980s from elective abortions. Many Catholic leaders, including Pope Francis, have said the COVID shots are morally acceptable. Historical fetal cell lines have been used to create vaccines for other diseases such as hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies.
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, argues that vaccines can be seen as a manifestation of God’s care and concern.
“It’s possible to understand God’s care for us at this moment as coming through the vaccines, as coming through God-given wisdom and hard work by those who have studied and developed the vaccines,” she said. “This is a gift from God, and I am not in the business of turning down gifts from God.”
But Corrigan, the Boston University theology student, suggests otherwise
On her website, Students Against Mandates, she includes links to scriptural passages to include in applications for religious exemptions as well as detailed steps for writing one. Corrigan also advises that contamination of blood “is usually the first problem for vaccines for all faiths.”
While there are many passages about blood in the Bible, the one denomination that typically asserts concerns about purity, often regarding blood infusions, are Jehovah’s Witnesses, said Grodin, the retired BU professor. But even they promote vaccination.
Corrigan founded Students Against Mandates in June, as colleges and universities were among the first to widely adopt COVID vaccine mandates.
Colleges have taken different approaches to exemptions, with some requiring a signed letter from a religious official that describes the religious tenet that precludes vaccination, while others accept personally written statements from a student or employee describing the religious basis for the objection.
A University of Massachusetts spokesman said they’re compiling numbers from their five campuses, but expect just over 1,000 student religious exemption requests out of 75,000 UMass students.
“We expect that well over 80 percent of those student exemption requests to be granted,” the spokesman said. “Any student granted an exemption is required to undergo at least weekly testing.”
For Corrigan, who calls COVID testing “nasal rape,” such rules are unfair.
“People need to say no and take a stand,” she said in closing her recent online class, with more than 140 people still on the session. As a stream of “Amens” and other comments wound down in the written chat section of the session, Corrigan concluded.
“I will be praying for you all,” she said.