Denver Government

Should a Denver Employee With a Religious Exemption Get a $400 Vaccination Reward?

Government and religion don't always mix well.
Government and religion don't always mix well. Pexels
On September 10, Mayor Michael Hancock sent an email to all City of Denver employees, letting them know that they could soon have a $400 bonus coming their way.

"To show how much we appreciate you putting your community first and getting vaccinated, I have instructed the Department of Finance to submit a proposed ordinance to City Council to provide employees with a $400 Public Health Order compliance bonus. This bonus will be provided to eligible city employees who upload their proof of vaccination or proof of their approved exempt status by September 30. While being protected from the worst of this virus’ effects is a reward in and of itself, I wanted to find another way to acknowledge your dedication to the health and safety of our residents and our entire city," Hancock wrote.

On August 2, concerned about surging COVID figures, Hancock announced that all City of Denver workers, as well as private-sector workers in high-risk settings who contract with the city, would have to get fully vaccinated — or secure an exemption — by September 30. In order to comply, that means an individual would have to get a second shot by today, September 15. Up to 14,000 people could be eligible for the bonus — and those who don't get vaccinated or secure an exemption could lose their jobs.

So far, around 425 Denver city employees have received either religious or medical exemptions. Under Hancock's proposal, they would all be eligible for the $400 bonus, and that concerns some councilmembers.

"Why is this a recognition and reward for successfully not getting vaccinated?" Councilman Jolon Clark asked Hancock administration officials who presented the concept to the Denver City Council Finance and Governance Committee on September 14. The mayor is asking for a budget allocation of $5 million to cover the award program.

"Title VII requires that anyone who’s entitled to an exemption on religious grounds, if there’s some sort of bonus program, they have to be given a reasonable path to earn that same bonus," responded Karla Pierce, assistant director of employment and labor law at the Denver City Attorney's Office. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Major religious institutions have been almost unanimous in their support of COVID vaccines. But that hasn't stopped employees from applying for vaccine exemptions.

"My ability to support this can only be as strong as my confidence in the scrutiny you are giving to these waivers, and it’s been widely reported how very easy, non-rigorous it is to get one. I’m deeply concerned about the equity of this program," Councilwoman Robin Kniech said during committee discussion.

"The Title VII standards for religious exemptions for requests of this nature are very broad," acknowledged Pierce. "Almost anything that someone says in terms of a sincerely-held religious belief, under the law, has to be accepted by the employer under the law.

"What we’ve done is approved those that we believe qualify under the standards that we’ve applied and denied those that we believe truly do not fit the standards, and we’re taking into account an analysis of the liability risks of denying exemptions to someone who was entitled to it. It’s a very difficult type of analysis to do," said Pierce.

As an example, she pointed to a city employee who says he's Muslin, and therefore does not wish to take the vaccine. "Now the Muslim faith, in general, supports the vaccines," she explained. "However, you can take parts of the Muslim faith or some of the more conservative branches of the Muslim faith that take a different view and under the law, an employee’s religious belief doesn’t have to be tied to a specific religion. Someone can be Muslim and still be entitled to an exemption based on their faith, even though the majority of the religious leaders in that faith support the vaccination. It’s dependent on that employee’s sincerely-held religious belief, and that can be taken from some of the principles of their faith."

Still, a religious-exemption application isn't always granted.

"What we have tried to do and tried very hard to do is weed out the employees who are really asserting a political basis, a philosophical objection, that kind of thing, and really dig down," said Pierce, noting that city officials have questioned these employees. "We’ve asked them, 'Why do you believe this when the faith that you’re associated with, those leaders say this?' It’s really difficult to discern when someone has a personally-, sincerely-held religious belief and a standard of kind of just saying, 'In my religion, my body is a temple and I don’t want to put a vaccine in it.' We kind of draw the line there. But beyond that, we have to follow the law, and the law doesn’t allow us to make very many interpretations ourselves or, we have to accept what the employee says."

The discussion didn't satisfy all the councilmembers on the committee.

"It feels to me like paying a reward to someone for their religion, and I think that is not what we in government should be doing, and that is paying you because of your religious beliefs. We should be paying people who have taken active steps to prevent the transmission of COVID," Kniech said.

As of September 7, according to Brendan Hanlon, the city's chief financial officer, "72 percent of all uniformed and career service city employees have verified their vaccination status."

The religious exemption isn't the only problematic aspect of the proposed program. Councilmembers told Hancock staffers that the proposal's rollout was managed poorly, with council receiving no advance notice.

"I think this is really unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ways that this could have been presented that this would be a slam dunk for me," Clark said.

The committee voted to move final consideration of the proposal to its next meeting, on September 28.

What would Jesus do?
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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