Over 25% of Beverly Hills Fire Department (BHFD) firefighters have requested exemptions to the vaccination mandate for healthcare workers in California. As fully certified paramedics, firefighters in the city fall under the state’s vaccine mandate, which allows for exceptions only for certain medical situations and “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
“If an exemption is approved, weekly COVID testing of those staff members not vaccinated will be mandatory per LA County Department of Public Health requirements. As we have from the beginning of the pandemic, the City will ensure compliance with the County’s Health Order,” said Chief of Communications Keith Sterling.
An email from BHFD Chief Gregory Barton to City Manager George Chavez obtained by the Courier reports that 25 firefighters out of the department’s 97 have filed exemptions with the city, two citing medical reasons and 23 citing religious beliefs.
As of press time, the city’s Director of Human Relations and a member of the City Attorney’s Office were in the process of interviewing those seeking exemptions.
In an interview with the Courier, Deputy Fire Chief Joe Matsch emphasized the department’s safety record over the last 18 months. “We have had zero cases of COVID transmission from a first responder to a patient,” he said. “It is because we have that level of PPP protection when we go into somebody’s home, because we do screening twice a day, because we do contact tracing.”
He acknowledged the fractiousness of the current moment and asked for patience from the community to allow the process to unfold. “Let’s see what happens after it works through the process. We can make informed decisions at that point,” he said.
Matsch said he had 100 Johnson & Johnson vaccines “ready to go” and felt optimistic about where things would land. “You’re going to see firefighters making decisions that are best for the community, best for their families, and best for themselves.”
Currently, no major religious denominations oppose COVID-19 vaccinations. Pope Francis has declared getting vaccinated a “moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.” The Christian Science Church, a proponent of prayer as an alternative to medicine, has remained neutral on the vaccine, counseling practitioners to have “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.”
But for a religious belief to qualify as “sincerely held,” it need not stem from organized religious doctrine, according to Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law Dorit Reiss, who writes about vaccine law. While difficult to police what constitutes a valid religious belief, the city can assess whether an employee’s belief seems genuine–especially if the city believes that the high number of requests indicates non-religious motivations on behalf of some of the firefighters.
The city’s task is made more difficult, Reiss said, by the way that the vaccine has been politicized. Anti-vaccine groups have sought to obfuscate the borders of ideology and religion, holding workshops to coach vaccine objectors on how to seek exemptions, she said.
Already, according to Matsch, firefighters in Beverly Hills are required to receive certain vaccines as a condition of employment. This could prove an obstacle for those claiming religious opposition to only the COVID-19 vaccine. Matsch could not name the specific vaccines at the time of the interview.
Other municipalities around the country have raised eyebrows at their own high levels of religious exemption requests. The president of the civilian Los Angeles Police Commission called the more than 2,600 religious exemptions filed by Los Angeles Police Department officers “extremely dubious.” Nearly 11% of Los Angeles city employees have indicated plans to seek a religious exemption.