Religious exemptions protect faith practices

Exterior of Engemann Student Health Center.
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life evaluates each individual exemption request by reviewing traditions, textual basis and sincerity through one-on-one interviews. (Sarah Cortina | Daily Trojan)

Before the return to campus after more than a year and a half of being online in the midst of a continuing pandemic, USC announced it would require vaccinations, making it the “cornerstone” of the University’s policies to keep the community safe. Despite a 95% vaccination rate — with more students in the midst of the vaccination process — the University allows those with religious and medical exemptions to remain unvaccinated. 

According to the latest numbers from USC Student Health, 2% of the population received either medical or religious exemptions, 90% of which are for religious reasons. 

To receive a religious exemption, students submit a form to Student Health that is then sent to the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, where it is either approved or denied. 

Students with exemptions are required to test twice a week, compared to once a week for vaccinated students.

The Daily Trojan spoke with Varun Soni, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, who reviews religious exemption applications, to discuss the reasoning for the University’s religious exemptions and provide a look into how exemption applications are evaluated. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Trojan: Why do we have a religious exemption for the vaccine at USC?

Varun Soni: Well, it’s part of our constitutional law tradition. Freedom of religion is right there in the First Amendment. The first part of the First Amendment is the basis for the founding of the country. 

D.T.: Is there anything [about] the role of universities supporting religious beliefs?

V.S.: The University perspective — we’re really trying to find the right balancing act where we can honor people’s personal beliefs and conscience and honor the free exercise of their religion as mandated by the First Amendment. But, we also have a particular threshold that we’re trying to reach in terms of vaccination for public health perspectives, and so, it is a bit of a balancing act. 

But I do think that universities have to be very clear in supporting religious exemptions because the entire University is based on the First Amendment. There is no research university without the free exchange of ideas, the free exchange of thought, without free speech, without free expression and religion.

D.T.: You talked about balancing religious freedom with the health of the community. Can you talk more about that and how you view it in your own mind?

V.S.: My role in this particular process is to really be the safeguard of religious freedom. And I’m the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life — my job is to make sure that our community is able to freely express and practice their religion, in a way that is consistent with the Constitution. 

So I lean more on the religious freedom side of things. But I have worked very closely with the Student Health Center just to make sure that our exemption numbers are in line with where we want to be, and we’ve been very pleased with that.

D.T.: Let’s say someone wants a religious exemption. They submit it to Student Health, and then it goes to you. What happens then — what’s your approval process like?

V.S.: My office reviews every individual case, or every individual exemption request. And not all of them are granted, but we do a pretty thorough evaluation of all of them. And we’re generally looking for three things. ‘Does the tradition say anything about this?’ So in other words, ‘Is there a doctrine around this?’ Like you might find with Christian Scientists, where there has been a history of religious and vaccine exemptions as part of religious practice, so it’s a tradition. 

‘Is there a textual basis for it?’ — so is there something from a scripture or a holy text that people are interpreting as mandating or requiring an exemption for that? And is it a sincerely held belief? Are people coming to this sincerely, as opposed to trying to game the system?

D.T.: Let’s talk about the first two first. Are there examples beyond the Christian Scientists group of traditions that require religious exemptions?

V.S.: Dutch Reformed Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those are smaller denomination traditions. What is true is that no major religion has come out and said, ‘Do not get the vaccination.”

We don’t find any traditions saying that. But there are traditions that say, ‘It’s up to the individual to pray upon it, to think about it, to work with their cleric and make decisions for themselves.’

So, even though no tradition has said you can’t have the vaccination, a lot of traditions have in some ways left it open to individuals to make that decision themselves. For example, the Catholic Church hasn’t put a prohibition up against vaccination — in fact, many Catholic leaders have encouraged people to get vaccinated — [but] there are a lot of Catholics who won’t get vaccinated because the mRNA clinical trials used fetal cells, and so that’s their personal belief that comes out of textual tradition. 

Most of the traditions empower their practitioners to make choices that make sense to them based on personal beliefs, and courts won’t differentiate between what the institution might say versus what a personal belief might be. 

D.T.: Then the third one, how do you evaluate sincerely held belief, and how do you dissect whether it’s just a way to get out of the vaccine or something someone really believes?

V.S.:  It’s pretty clear if someone’s going to cite text or scripture or talk deeply about their traditions … But at the end of the day, it is self-reported. I am the chaplain of the University, and I assume the best from everyone … So, unless there were glaring red flags, if people are self-reporting that this is their sincerely held belief, in the absence of any contrary evidence, then that’s what we’re going to accept.

D.T.: You mentioned you declined people. Can you talk about some of those cases?

V.S.:  If you’re getting declined, it’s because you haven’t actually stated a religious belief. There are people who state political beliefs or personal declarations or distrust of the government or distrust of the science. That’s not a religious belief.

D.T.: You had conversations with students about the exemptions, correct? Or was it just the form?

V.S.: I had a few. If we needed some more clarity, we would reach out to some students. Some were on their faces very clear, but we did reach out for some more information.

D.T.: And what would those conversations look like?

V.S.: It was just sort of, ‘Could you explain this in a little more detail, and students always could.’ 

And also for me, it was an opportunity to reach out to students and be like, ‘Listen, you’re religious students. We have an Office of  Religious and Spiritual Life. I’m the dean. Here’s my number, call me for anything.’

D.T.: Did you ever push getting vaccinated at all, or are you just there to support [student’s religious beliefs]?

V.S.: No, that’s not my [role]. I have a role here as the chaplain, which is really to help facilitate this process of religious exemption. The reality is we don’t have a template for this … We’re doing our very best. We’re trying to honor every individual request. We’re trying to do that for all of our faculty, students and staff.

D.T.: Is there anything else you want to add about religious exemptions at USC? 

V.S.: I don’t want anyone in our community to feel that religious exemptions are making them less safe. Given the total numbers, given the weekly testing and the other protocols that people who aren’t vaccinated go through, I don’t think that’s the case at all.

I think that the public framing of it has been, ‘Well, people’s personal beliefs are making me less safe, so do people have a right to personal beliefs that make me less safe?’ On our campus, I think that’s a problematic framing. I don’t see people’s personal beliefs making anyone less safe.