55 federal agencies tracking religious objection requests amid concern from conservatives

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program, Oct. 14, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program, Oct. 14, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. | White House/Adam Schultz

As many as 55 federal departments and agencies have created 57 rule changes to keep track of employees or applicants who have sought exemptions of various kinds, including exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, a Christian conservative lobbying group reports.

While some rules are limited to vaccine exemptions, others track all exemptions, such as an employee or applicant seeking accommodation from working on the Sabbath or Sunday, reports Liberty Counsel Action, the lobbying arm of the nonprofit legal organization that specializes in religious freedom cases. Some rules even track visitors to their buildings or events.

For example, the Treasury Department’s Office of Civil Rights and Diversity has stated its database will document all religious exemption requests and denials.

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The office “will track and maintain ‘information about a requestor’s religious beliefs’ as well as the ‘informal dispute resolution’ of each person,” the Liberty Counsel Action statement reads.

“It will also record ‘correspondence,’ ‘supporting notes and documentation’ and even ‘records of oral conversations,’ on every person who requests an exemption. This database will track and record this level of information for everyone from ‘pre-employment, during current or former employment or for [attendees at] a particular event.’”

While there are variations in the rules across the government agencies, the group warns that “all of them are causing serious concern about invasive privacy violations by the federal government recording and permanently storing religious and medical data on those seeking exemptions.”

The U.S. Army, for example, is going beyond recording the “religious preference” of their employees.

“The Army is pairing this religious information with biometric data, like fingerprints and digital photographs,” the watchdog reveals.

In a subsequent statement, the advocacy organization points out that a new Department of Homeland Security rule allows it to track employees, contractors, subcontractors, and certain private employees based on religious accommodations.

“The database can include personal information, audio conversations and photos — and that information can be shared with any branch of our government and even foreign nations,” the group contends. 

Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., sent a letter signed by 10 Republican members of Congress to President Joe Biden, condemning his administration for keeping a list of federal employees who applied for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Jan. 24 letter reads: “From day one, your administration has displayed a consistent attitude of contempt towards Americans who prioritize faith in their lives.”

“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. 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.”

Last month, conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation released a report saying that it found at the time at least 19 federal agencies — including five cabinet-level agencies — that had created or proposed a list tracking religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., introduced HR 6502, known as the “Religious Freedom Over Mandates Act,” which would “prohibit the use of federal funds for any system of records on religious accommodations with respect to any COVID–19 vaccination requirement.”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but the list of departments and agencies tracking exemptions “has grown significantly since the bill was introduced,” according to Liberty Counsel Action.

“IBM created a database of the Jewish people in Europe,” Liberty Counsel Action Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. “Using this database, Nazis were able to identify the Jews and prohibit them from public and then private employment. This database is what enabled Nazis to round up those targeted for ghettos and concentration camps.”

Staver contends that the federal government has started its own database.

“We cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “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.”

The Heritage Foundation commentary quoted a public comment by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who said he believes there is a “chilling effect on a citizens’ exercise of religion due to the creation of this Database.”

The First Liberty Institute, a conservative law firm based in Plano, Texas, released a statement in response to The Heritage Foundation’s report, calling the objector lists “alarming.”

“These policies could negatively impact religious freedom for people of all faiths across the country. It’s incredibly dangerous (indeed, dystopian) for the government to have a list of religious citizens at its disposal,” wrote First Liberty's Jorge Gomez. “Tyranny and repression aren’t too far away when the state begins to actively track the faithful. Religious liberty is greatly endangered once the state monitors religious citizens in order to get them to conform to the government’s sanctioned viewpoint.”

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