The New Side Hustle: Helping Anti-Vaxxers Get Religious Exemptions

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

The spike in anti-vaxxers seeking religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine is creating a cottage industry of pastors, lawyers, and activists offering help with crafting letters that they say can help you dodge the jab and still keep your job.

With government and employee vaccine mandates taking hold, religious exemptions that assert a worker’s theological objection to inoculation are one of the few legal routes left for anti-vaxxers holding out on getting a COVID-19 shot.

In response to that desperation, a range of services with varying price points have cropped up: from $25 Zoom seminars with untrained activists who lack legal training, to pastors offering “concierge packages” and attestations of faith for a generous donation, to the pricier option of $1,400 consulting sessions with attorneys who specialize in anti-vaccine litigation.

And while federal courts offer contradictory guidance on who should get a religious exemption and under what conditions, the demand is only getting higher, according to one sought-after firm.

"There’s been an incredible rise in the number of people seeking exemptions from our vantage point,” said Aaron Siri, managing partner of Siri Glimstad, a law firm well-known in the anti-vaxx world because the firm specializes in vaccine-related litigation and worked in the niche field well before the pandemic.

Siri Glimstad attorneys have filed cases on behalf of the Informed Consent Action Network, a Texas-based anti-vaccine group founded and funded by former Dr. Phil Show producer Del Bigtree, against the CDC and Department of Health & Human Services, as well as on behalf of clients seeking to overturn employer mandates entirely.

When it comes to religious exemptions, Siri says employers have generally been obliging and he hasn’t had to file a suit over a request yet. “I would say, for the most part, they’re accepted, but it does vary by circumstances and employer,” Siri says. The firm advertises that “hundreds of individuals” have obtained a vaccine exemption through its services.

But those exemptions don’t come cheap. To hire Siri Glimstad’s attorneys for help on crafting a letter, their website says a consultation on religious exemptions runs around $1,400 per client.

Liberty Counsel—an evangelical nonprofit legal foundation—has been offering pro bono representation for clients in pursuit of religious exemption. The group previously focused on more traditional culture-war issues like anti-abortion suits and cases seeking to deny LGBTQ Americans their rights but Liberty’s founder, Mathew Staver, shares many of his clients conspiratorial views about vaccines and likes to air them in public. In speeches, he’s called COVID-19 shots part of a “depopulation” conspiracy to force the world to “have a tracking mechanism to determine whether or not you've had one of these particular injections.”

Just recently, one of Liberty Counsel’s most prominent cases involved health-care workers in Maine with a suit aimed at overturning the state’s vaccine mandate for hospital and nursing home employees. Last week, the Supreme Court declined to grant an emergency injunction as the case plays out in lower courts.

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The group did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast but Liberty Counsel has been inundated with requests for help in crafting exemption requests to employers, schools, and government agencies, according to Liberty’s website. The demand for the firm’s exemption demand-crafting services has grown so much that Liberty now advertises for attorneys to work as affiliates to help cope with the “thousands of people” reaching out to them.

“There are more people than we can help and we hope you can take some referrals in your state to send demand letters,” the firm instructs prospective affiliates.

While some who hope to avoid a vaccine have had some victory on the state level—a court recently ruled that New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health-care workers had to allow for religious exemptions—employer-based mandates could be harder for the vaccine resistant to crack.

Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “If an employee has a sincere religious objection to a workplace rule, the employee deserves reasonable accommodation unless it’s an undue burden,” explains Dorit Reiss, a professor of law at UC Hastings who has written extensively about vaccine requirements. “It has to be sincere which means employers are on decent ground if they try to evaluate sincerity although there are a lot of pitfalls in evaluating sincerity.”

“What employees are entitled to is reasonable accommodation, which means they don’t have to be given exactly what they want, such as a complete exemption,” Reiss says. “The employer may say ‘Well, I can’t have you working inside a nursing home with a vulnerable patient if you’re not taking the vaccine but I’ll give you an administrative job away from the patient.’”

Other far-right organizations have also offered free exemption template letters aimed at getting employers to excuse them from a shot. Sidney Powell’s legal advocacy nonprofit, Defending the Republic, has offered template letters (Protestants and Catholics only) and encouraged their followers to “Push back against Mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations!” with them.

America’s Frontline Doctors, the pro-Trump, anti-mask group that’s hyped bogus COVID miracle cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, offers its own free template letter but also directs visitors to the website of Pastor David and Peggy Hall, a California couple who offer a $175 “concierge package” that includes sample documents, private group consulting calls and a personal attestation of faith. Anita Martir Rivera, an evangelical minister based in Texas also offers “letters of religious exemption” with “no personal religious questions asked” (“a donation,” however, “will be humbly asked on behalf of the work of the ministry,” according to her website).

Neither the Halls nor Rivera responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

Cait Corrigan, a graduate student who got into a public feud with Earlham College over its vaccine policy (an Earlham Spokesperson says an administrator mistakenly told her vaccines were required at graduation but that the school subsequently clarified its policy), rose to prominence in the anti-vaxx movement after an appearance on the podcast of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, one of the founding members of the modern anti-vaccine movement.

Reached by The Daily Beast, Corrigan declined to answer questions about her exemption letter business.

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Other letters may seem free but include hidden costs. Jackson Lahmeyer, a pastor and Oklahoma Republican running for Senate, advertises a template for a religious exemption letter on his campaign website. Users hoping to download the letter have to fork over their name and phone number to Lahmeyer’s campaign site and are automatically subscribed to the candidate’s campaign list.

Not everyone is eager to help out with workers demands to continue their jobs shot-free.

“There’s certainly been an uptick in calls from people who do not want to abide a COVID vaccine mandate as a condition of continued employment,” Stephan Mashel, an employment attorney based in New Jersey, told The Daily Beast.

“I’ve been offered many times to file lawsuits and been offered to help other lawyers and I want no part of it. I think those lawsuits are baseless and that’s my position and that’s my firm’s position.”

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