A faith-based healthcare organization, Ascension Healthcare, has denied an employees religious exemption for COVID while simultaneously approving one for the flu. “Undue hardship” on the organization was cited, while undue hardship on the employee was ignored. The denial letter she received appears as boilerplate.
“I went to school for eight years… and in six months, it was taken away from me by a so-called Catholic organization that does not respect my religious beliefs.”
Our source submitted exemption requests for both influenza and COVID-19 on Sept. 13:
“I am writing to formally and respectfully apply for a religious exemption to immunization. I personally hold wholehearted and authentic religious beliefs that forbid immunizations.
Regarding the COVID-19 vaccination in particular, the vaccine goes against my sincerely held belief that I am not to introduce foreign substances into my body that change how God designed it. Vaccines deviate from the process in which my body was designed to fight illnesses, and I cannot, in good conscience, take a vaccine that would alter my body’s God-given abilities to fight illnesses.
The exemption request letter also cited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who published a ‘Note on the morality of using some anti-COVID-19 vaccines’ on Dec. 21, 2020:
“COVID-19 vaccines that used cell lines originating from aborted fetuses are morally compromised… The J&J vaccine ‘is an adenoviral vector grown in the PER.C6 cell line that originated from a healthy 18-week-old aborted child.’ The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were tested using the ‘morally compromised HEK-293 cell line,’ originating from ‘a child aborted in the Netherlands in 1972.'”
The personal story contained in her letter is partially reprinted here by agreement of anonymity—our source has no desire for personal fame but to express what others must feel:
“I freely make this request for the glory of God and consistent with my faith in my savior Jesus Christ, who lives & reigns with the Holy Spirit.
Vaccines are not God’s creation, especially those which use unholy ingredients and methodologies; they are made by man and utilize the logic of man, wherein man desires to feel the power of God, plays God, when only God is fit for such a duty. For this reason, vaccines take away the Holy Spirit from my body. I am charged to protect the body that God has given me. I am given one body while I’m visiting this world before going to my true place of citizenship in Heaven.”
Ascension Healthcare is a large non-profit Catholic health system that operates “more than 2,600 sites of care—including 142 hospitals and more than 40 senior living facilities—in 19 states and the District of Columbia.” Ascension says it pays “special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable.”
As “one of the nation’s leading and largest non-profit Catholic health systems,” Ascension also said it has “bold plans for the next chapter of [its] sustainability journey” and has “launched a new justice-focused framework called ABIDE, built upon the hallmarks of Appreciation – Belongingness – Inclusivity – Diversity – Equity.” The description of that initiative says it intends to “help address racism and systemic injustice.”
A July 27 announcement article on Ascension’s website said:
“Our timeline for completing the vaccine series and meeting this requirement will be Nov. 12, 2021. This timing is aligned with Ascension’s annual influenza vaccination requirement, and we will follow a similar implementation process. In those instances when someone may not be able to get vaccinated due to a medical condition or strongly held religious belief, Ascension will provide its associates a process for requesting an exemption similar to the process we use for the annual influenza vaccine.”
“One way we can prevent or minimize diseases is by receiving appropriate vaccinations. As we work to protect those we serve, it is more important than ever for associates to do what they can to strengthen their immune systems. Therefore, our annual influenza vaccination program will run at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccination program. Both require associates to obtain vaccines or submit proof of vaccinations for influenza and COVID-19 on or before Nov. 12, 2021.”
Ascension initially denied both of our source’s religious exemption requests, starting a 7-day clock for submission of additional information and appeal. Our source responded:
“I realize that under Title VII, an employer has the right to deny a request as you have done if it poses undue hardship upon the employer.
However, I would like an explanation of the undue hardship it poses for Ascension – as for the last 16 months prior to this vaccine mandate, I have worked with patients using PPE. That was deemed an acceptable practice while treating patients and interacting with fellow staff during that time period. Ascension did not remain closed until a vaccine was made available, so it is hard for me to reconcile why it is now an undue hardship to continue allowing me to serve patients using the same exact PPE that you are providing to my vaccinated colleagues.
I am and remain willing to continue using PPE in accordance with company policy. Please address what additional undue hardship this would render unto Ascension, given that all vaccinated employees are required to also wear appropriate PPE, and no “undue hardship” has yet been defined.
I am also inquiring into the religious exemption practices at Ascension. Please provide me with the following general information:
1) How many applications for religious exemption were received by the exemption committee for the COVID-19 vaccine?
2) How many of those applications were approved if any?
3) How many of those applications were denied if any?
4) Of those applications which were approved, please describe the roles of those employees—and how a conclusion was drawn that those particular individuals would not impose an undue hardship upon Ascension?”
She also cited CDC and Director Rochelle Walensky in the appeal letter. Due to breakthrough cases, CDC had changed guidance to recommend that even fully vaccinated people should return to wearing masks. Walensky had announced that the vaccinated could carry the same viral load as the unvaccinated and that a vaccinated person could be asymptomatic.
Our source, who has natural immunity, wrote in the appeal letter:
“That statement straight from the Director of the CDC should caution you that my vaccinated coworkers are just as capable of infecting patients as I am being unvaccinated. Worse yet, they may not have symptoms that alert you to their potential infection.
If we are to trust the science, we need to trust all of it, especially the scientist employed by the very company producing this vaccine. Natural immunity has always been more effective than any vaccine in history. Logic dictates that it shouldn’t be any different for COVID-19. Especially vaccines that lose their efficacy over time and require booster shots as Pfizer & Moderna are currently offering.”
On Oct. 10, she received Ascension’s denial of her COVID exemption request:
“After careful consideration, the vaccine exemption review committee has concluded that we are unable to accommodate your religious exemption request.
We very much recognize and appreciate the personal choices you must make and acknowledge the sincerity of your beliefs. Due to the nature of your role and working on-site as well as with patients, it would pose an undue hardship on the organization to grant your religious exemption request because the vaccine is the most effective means to mitigate the risk to patient and workplace safety. Please note that the other infection control protocols in place do not reduce the severity of illness or prevent the illness in the same manner that the vaccine has proven to do. By reducing the severity of illness within our workforce, this better promotes workplace safety. We hope that you will consider receiving the vaccine so as to be in compliance with our Nov. 12, 2021 deadline.”
Yet nineteen days later she received an approval for her flu shot exemption request. The only accommodation required would be to “continue masking during the influenza season.”
Ascension legal had reserved the right to modify the accomodations at any time in any way:
“Additional measures may be required, or we may need to adjust our ability to accommodate, as the influenza season develops and/or circumstances change.”
Joe Impicciche is President and CEO of Ascension. He was invited to Trump’s bipartisan Great American Economic Revival Industry Group as a health systems representative in April 2020, one of six that included “health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and makers and distributors of medical equipment and supplies.”
Impicciche bragged, “[Trump] understands and appreciates all we are doing, especially the work of doctors, nurses and other clinicians, in fighting COVID-19.” He said that Trump told his group he was “committed to maintaining the strength of the U.S. healthcare system” and would be supporting the healthcare players as they “weather the economic challenges of this fight and transition to our new post-COVID reality.” Impicciche further noted:
“While at the White House, Joe and several other health system leaders also discussed the newly announced Dynamic Ventilator Reserve Plan, which facilitates the sharing of ventilators between health systems around the country to manage need during surge times.”
Impicciche took a clear stance and posted a celebration message when the FDA approved Pfizer’s ‘Comirnaty’ product. Even though the Pfizer product under EUA and the one with the brand name ‘Comirnaty’ are different formulations, many still believe the injection they have received is an FDA-approved product. The message from Ascension’s CEO does not distinguish between them. It also claims that all vaccines are safe and highly effective and implies that more injected people would be both good and help to end the pandemic:
“This is an important milestone. While all of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. have long been considered safe and highly effective, now that the FDA has granted full FDA approval to Comirnaty (the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine), we anticipate that many more people in our communities will step up to be vaccinated, helping us overcome the COVID-19 pandemic together.”
The accelerated approvals for the widely administered Pfizer product under EUA were completed without the use of any advisory committee and are being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General, while Comirnaty is not even available in the United States.
The services offered by Ascension go beyond the clinical and those of a basic health network. They include “venture capital investing, investment management, biomedical engineering, facilities management, [and] risk management.” Ascension also contracts through its own group purchasing organization, a type of third-party middleman in the healthcare supply chain that has been criticized for raising health care prices and facilitating kickbacks.
Ascension said that a “thorough moral and ethical analysis” informed their decision to implement the new drug mandate, but no details of that analysis were given in the announcement article, nor in the internal emails our source has provided. Citing “new variants,” it says are “emerg[ing],” Ascension would “require that all associates be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether or not they provide direct patient care,” and even if they work remotely, for the “safety of patients and visitors, our associates, our families and loved ones, and the community.”