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OU faculty member voices concern regarding religious exemption to university vaccine mandate

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A medical worker draws a COVID-19 vaccination into a syringe before an OU vaccination clinic March 26.

Following a university-wide employee vaccine mandate pressured by the risk of losing “hundreds of millions of dollars each year in federal funding,” the inclusion of religious exemptions under OU’s new mandate raised concern for an OU faculty member calling it “opaque” and “undefined.” 

In an Oct. 31 email, OU President Joseph Harroz announced OU will require COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees under President Joseph Biden’s federal vaccine mandate. Harroz wrote after consulting the state government, medical and public health officials, the university is “obligated to adhere to the order” due to the risk of losing federal funding for the university each year. 

Under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, OU is required to accommodate religious beliefs, practices and observances if the beliefs are “sincerely held” and the reasonable accommodation poses no undue hardship on the employer. 

OU Law professor Joseph Thai wrote in an email OU fails to provide public guidance on the criteria for obtaining an exemption. He wrote given how “selectively” and “irrationally” OU has implemented its “limited mask mandates,” there is cause for concern that OU will implement its religious exemption in ways that are “worrisome.”

“For example, religious exemptions could be granted so loosely as to undermine the public health benefits of the mandate or OU might grant them so inconsistently as to favor some religious claimants over others,” Thai wrote. “OU should be transparent about who gets religious exemptions and why so that its practice may be scrutinized.”

On Sept. 9, Biden issued an executive order mandating vaccinations for federal employees, contractors and other identified individuals. All OU employees — including faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate student employees, part-time, temporary and PEAK employees, and graduate research and teaching assistants — must be vaccinated with a World Health Organization approved COVID-19 vaccine. 

OU Human Resources announced on Nov. 4 the extension of the university’s deadline for required COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees from Dec. 8 to Jan. 4, 2022.

Thai wrote rather than mandating vaccines when “the health and lives of Sooners were on the line,” OU is willing to “defy state law” when money is at stake. 

“Money, apparently, is worth more than lives to OU,” Thai wrote. “That is grotesque and immoral, but unsurprising.”

In an OU Faculty Senate meeting on Sept. 13, OU Senior Vice President and Provost André-Denis Wright said the university is trying to “stay within the boundaries of law” and maintain student retention through their former COVID-19 policies. If the university were to enact a mask mandate, students and faculty currently refusing to mask would be able to opt-out of the requirement.

According to a university spokesperson, if an employee requests an exemption to the vaccine mandate due to their religious beliefs, the university must receive and review their request. Documentation should include a statement from the employee validating how compliance with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement substantially burdens the individual’s religious exercise or conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.

OU Human Resources’ Leave Administration Office will be the primary evaluator of the COVID-19 compliance requests and exemptions, according to a university spokesperson. Additional expertise may be sought out from those within Human Resources and the Office of Legal Counsel.

senior news reporter

Alexia Aston is a journalism sophomore and senior news reporter at The Daily. She started at The Daily in the fall of 2020 as a news reporter, and is originally from Clinton, Oklahoma.

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