Groups raise concerns over 19 federal agencies’ plans to track religious objectors to COVID-19 vaccines

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

Some conservative groups are raising concerns over the Biden administration's reported tracking of federal employees who have requested religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccinations.

The Heritage Foundation released a report last week that found at least 19 federal agencies had created or proposed a list tracking religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sarah Parshall Perry and GianCarlo Canaparo, legal fellows at Heritage’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, wrote in the report that, based on researching the Federal Register, there were “at least 19 total federal agencies — including five cabinet level agencies — that have created or proposed to create these tracking lists for religious-exemption requests from their employees.”

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“As the nation’s largest employer, with over four million civilian and military employees, the federal government has received tens of thousands of religious exemption requests,” stated Perry and Canaparo.

“It now appears that an increasing number of federal agencies are keeping and preserving those individuals’ names, religious information, personally identifying information, and other data stored in lists across multiple government agencies.”

Perry and Canaparo noted that the lists “will be shared between federal agencies” and include information such as “religious affiliation, the reasons and support given for religious accommodation requests, names, contact information, date of birth, aliases, home address, contact information, and other identifying information.”

The Heritage commentary quoted a public comment by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who said he believed there was 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 Planio, Texas, released a statement Friday 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 Jorge Gomez of First Liberty.

“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.”

Earlier this month, Perry and Canaparo reported that the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia had announced the creation of the “Employee Religious Exception Request Information System.”

According to the announcement, the system sought to maintain “personal religious information collected in response to religious accommodation requests for religious exception from the federally mandated vaccination requirement in the context of a public health emergency or similar health and safety incident.”

“The system of records will assist the Agency in the collection, storing, dissemination, and disposal of employee religious exemption request information collected and maintained by the Agency,” stated the announcement.

Although the agency in question was a small federal body, Perry and Canaparo expressed concern about the list, and believed that the new system would “serve as a model for a whole-of-government push to assemble lists of Americans who object on religious grounds to a COVID-19 vaccine.”

“The announcement also does not say what the agency will do with this information after it has decided an employee’s religious accommodation request,” wrote the legal fellows.

“And neither does the announcement explain why the Biden administration chose to test this policy in an agency with a majority-black staff, who are both more religious and less vaccinated than other groups.”

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