Bob Reiman doesn’t remember if he’s ever gotten a vaccination of any kind.
“I don’t think so, no,” he said Thursday, while volunteering at the Christian Science Reading Room in downtown Colorado Springs.
He and others who hold certain religious beliefs may face a difficult decision in coming months, as COVID-19 vaccine mandates spread alongside the new delta variant.
President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that all federal employees and contractors must be vaccinated came a day after Wednesday’s news that two major hospital systems in Colorado, UCHealth and Denver Health, will require all employees and volunteers to be vaccinated or be fired.
But the issue is not cut-and-dried for some Christian Scientists, Catholics, evangelical Christians and others who may see the vaccine as out of sync with their beliefs.
Reiman said if he were in a situation where the COVID vaccine was mandated, he “probably” would get one. But that choice would carry the possibility of injuring his spiritual walk.
“It’s not going to hurt me, but it’s not going to help me,” he said. “It moves me off my spiritual basis toward a more material reliance. My dependency is a spiritual basis and not simply having my arm shot.”
Christian Scientists who decide to receive the vaccine won’t be punished or shunned, he said, since the church views the decision as a personal matter.
As a longtime Christian Scientist, Reiman studies the church’s teachings and the Bible, and like other followers adopts a position on how he will live out his faith — which advocates but does not require healing by prayer rather than medical care.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires religious exemptions for vaccines based on beliefs, practices or observances be considered “where a reasonable accommodation exists without undue hardship to the employer.”
The condition applies whether the employer is government, private or nonprofit, or religious or secular, said attorney Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based nonprofit that defends religious-freedom cases, including several COVID-related lawsuits in Colorado.
Seeking vaccine exemptions has become a way of life for Christian Scientists like Reiman.
“It’s not to avoid vaccines, it’s that we deal with it in a different way — we deal with it through prayer,” he said.
Christians who oppose abortion also often seek exemption from taking vaccines that are derived from aborted fetal cell lines, or vaccines sold by companies that profit from the sale of vaccines and other products derived from abortions, Staver said.
“It is unlawful for employers to force vaccinations on staff and employees holding religious convictions against a vaccine, and to refuse a reasonable accommodation," he said in a memo addressing COVID vaccine mandates.
Colorado’s Roman Catholic bishops have advised parishioners not to receive the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine but have OK’d the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as "morally acceptable," according to a letter the bishops issued earlier this year.
The Johnson & Johnson, or AstraZeneca, vaccination used cell lines derived from an aborted fetus in its design, development, production and testing and is “not a morally valid option if one has the ability to choose a vaccine,” the bishops said.
The bishops also maintain that employers should not mandate vaccines, said Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops in public policymaking.
Catholics can seek exemptions from local priests, she said, but the bishops have not yet released an official procedure. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has issued a vaccine exemption template, Vessely added.
UCHealth officials said at a press conference Wednesday that “exemptions will be granted only for valid medical or religious reasons.”
Staff and volunteers approved for exemption will be required to wear masks at its facilities and submit to weekly COVID testing, said Cary Vogrin, spokeswoman for UCHealth, including the Memorial Hospital system in Colorado Springs.
“Protecting patients, visitors, staff and providers is always UCHealth’s top priority,” she said in an email. “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it has been shown to prevent almost all serious cases and deaths from COVID-19.”
The new requirement is an expansion of the health care system's policy that staff must receive annual flu shots, to “increase safety for everyone,” Vogrin said.
COVID vaccine exemption requests will be “carefully considered to determine if criteria is met for an exemption,” she said.
Medical exemptions will require documentation from a physician to support the request and could include allergies to vaccine components, she added.
Requests for religious exemptions have been few, Vogrin said. Less than 2% of employees have received exemptions from flu vaccinations in recent years, she said, the vast majority for medical reasons relating to allergies.
Centura Health, which operates Penrose-St. Francis Health Services facilities in Colorado Springs and has Catholic roots and policies, is not requiring its 21,000 employees to be inoculated with a COVID vaccine "at this time," said spokeswoman Becky Brockman.
The organization is encouraging vaccination, she said, including by offering $500 "appreciation bonuses" as an incentive.
That has boosted the employee vaccination rate to 75%, Brockman said.
UCHealth's vaccination rate is at 85%, Vogrin said.
For some faiths, religious exemption from COVID vaccines is a non-issue.
Three guiding principles of Judaism — saving a life, protecting a life and taking care of one another — apply to the topic, said Rabbi Jay Sherwood, who leads Temple Shalom, Colorado Springs’ largest synagogue.
“As Jewish people, we follow these on making decisions,” Sherwood said, “and getting vaccinated does all three of those things.”
Muslims also likely would not object theologically or doctrinally to the COVID vaccine, said Arshad Yousufi, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, the sole mosque in town.
“In Islam, it’s a principle that you’re supposed to take care of yourself physically and mentally,” he said.
“If it was something that would hurt your heath, you could look for an exemption, but something that would probably help save your life would not be considered for a religious exemption.”