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Religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine not likely to stand up in court, says attorney

You can get a religious exemption form online or from some Charlotte churches. However, you are still likely to lose your job, says a Charlotte employment attorney.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Many employers that are mandating COVID-19 vaccines are offering workers a religious exemption opportunity to steer clear of the vaccine. But employment attorneys say it's difficult for them to be approved by employers or the court. 

Josh Van Kampen is a plaintiff employment attorney with Van Kampen Law, LLC. in Charlotte. He said his phone has been ringing off the hook, lately. 

"Recently a good 50 to 60% of our calls are people who have been fired for refusing to take an employer-mandated vaccine, or who are worried about being fired," Van Kampen said. 

For the attorney who routinely deals with employment law, he won't take a vaccine religious exemption case to court.

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"I don't know any other plaintiff's attorney in town that is open to taking these cases, either," he said. "I think judges and juries are going to be more sympathetic to the employers that are trying to protect their workforce, than an employee, an individual employee worried about themselves and their own religious belief."

Van Kampen said a worker has to essentially have a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with the taking of the vaccine.

The chances of a religious exemption holding up in court are thin, with a one out of 10 chance, according to Van Kampen. That's because companies and employers have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of all employers under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, Van Kampen said. 

"When the employer is looking at, 'Okay, well, I can be sued for not providing a healthy, safe workplace, or I can be sued for not providing a religious accommodation,'" he explained. 

He noted a religious accommodation was never intended to circumvent the health and safety of a workforce. 

RELATED: 'It's good but it's not great | COVID-19 vaccination rate for Charlotte city employees released

It hasn't stopped churches or even people online from selling or giving out exemption forms. 

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dilworth has parishioners who asked about religious exemptions. 

WCNC Charlotte was told the church pointed parishioners who asked for exemptions toward a drafted exemption letter written by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Parishioners could fill it out but a local priest or bishop would not have to sign it. 

At Freedom House Church in Charlotte, Pastor Troy Maxwell posted to his Facebook page in early August, offering to write a religious exemption for church members. 

Freedom House Charlotte responded to WCNC Charlotte Friday saying, in part, "It is despicable for a business or government agency to force someone to take a vaccine that is unproven, dangerous, and not fully tested." It's important to note, the FDA has given full approval to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.  

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"These churches should not be handing out religious exemptions, like lollipops," Van Kampen said.

"They're really doing harm to their parishioners," he added. "They're risking their livelihood on a bet on that letter, and they are going to lose that gamble nine out of 10 times with their employer."

Van Kampen says even if you got an exemption letter and handed it in to your employer, it likely wouldn't be enough.  

"An employer can ask you, well do you go to that church," he said. "Why did you not have a religious exemption for the flu vaccine but you did a COVID vaccine," he explained as he gave another hypothetical question.

An option some may take is to not get vaccinated -- but it's one they may lose their job over. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.