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Her father died from COVID-19. Now she's grappling with her family's church supporting religious exemptions from the vaccine.

INSIDER logo INSIDER 9/16/2021 kbalevic@insider.com (Katie Balevic)
a man and a woman taking a selfie: Uel Trejo smiled next to her father on the night of her senior prom. Courtesy of Uel Trejo © Courtesy of Uel Trejo Uel Trejo smiled next to her father on the night of her senior prom. Courtesy of Uel Trejo
  • Uel Trejo said the pastors at her conservative church downplayed the pandemic, even after one pastor caught COVID-19 himself.
  • Some churches are helping parishioners get religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Experts say religious exemptions provide a loophole for people who don't want to get the vaccine for any reason at all.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Uel Trejo has attended the non-denominational Cornerstone Church with her family in San Antonio, Texas for nearly 15 years. But in recent years, Trejo, who identifies as a Christian, said she has watched her church grow increasingly political and vocal in its support of right-wing ideas.

That's why the 20-year-old wasn't surprised when the church's lead pastor advocated for religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine in light of sweeping mandates.

"We have received a number of phone calls here at the ministry for individuals who are concerned about vaccine mandates, and they're concerned that it's going to cost them their career because some of the places that they work are saying 'You will be vaccinated or you will be terminated,'" lead pastor Matt Hagee said in an August 22 service. "Believe me, our religious liberty is something that's under attack in the United States today."

During the service, Hagee, whose father, Senior Paster John Hagee, recovered from COVID-19 and was vaccinated, referred parishioners to First Liberty, a non-profit legal organization that advocates for religious liberties. The organization advertises a "vaccine protection kit" to help readers "know your rights on vaccine mandates against increasingly hostile legal threats to your freedom to believe and to act upon your beliefs."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a religious exemption may apply to those who have a "sincere religious belief" that would prohibit them from getting a vaccine. Some churches and religious leaders are actively helping parishioners get religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, despite rising cases and hospitalizations.

David Hacker, director of litigation at First Liberty, said the brochure is an attempt to help people qualify their religious beliefs to a school or employer when asking for accommodations.

"We're not calling those balls and strikes on whether someone has a sincere belief or not," Hacker told Insider. "What we're doing is we're providing them with a legal analysis of the protections that they have available to them, giving them samples and telling them, 'You need to put this in your own words. You need to craft this according to your own religious beliefs.'"

a group of people standing in front of a birthday cake: Uel (fourth from left) celebrated her father's (second from right) birthday with the Trejo family. Courtesy of Uel Trejo © Courtesy of Uel Trejo Uel (fourth from left) celebrated her father's (second from right) birthday with the Trejo family. Courtesy of Uel Trejo

Trejo, whose father died from COVID-19 in January, said while the pastor's statement about religious exemptions made her roll her eyes, it struck a chord with others in the audience.

"As soon as he said that, people started cheering and jumping out of their seats," Trejo recalled. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is so weird.' It was like an alternate reality from everyone else that is living through this."

Representatives from the Cornerstone Church did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.


Video: More Than 35,000 People Have Used This Pastor's Digital COVID Vaccine Religious Exemption Form (Newsweek)

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Trejo said she has lost several family members to COVID-19, but she and her surviving family members are vaccinated.

"Both my parents had COVID, but unfortunately, my dad didn't make it," Trejo said, adding that her father would have gotten vaccinated for public health reasons. "He was a big Trump supporter and everything, and he ate up all the news that was given to him. But he would always wear his mask and take the proper precautions because he was a rule follower."

Trejo said it's difficult to see people with wide platforms sewing doubt in vaccines and spreading conspiracies.

"I think all of us want to return to some sense of normalcy, but these people who keep saying all these different things and going against science and just not taking the necessary precautions for themselves, for their families, for their friends, for their own community, I think it's really selfish," she said.

a group of people posing for the camera: Uel Trejo's father, Andres (top right), held her in his arms alongside his wife, Leonor (bottom right), and the rest of their family. Courtesy of Uel Trejo © Courtesy of Uel Trejo Uel Trejo's father, Andres (top right), held her in his arms alongside his wife, Leonor (bottom right), and the rest of their family. Courtesy of Uel Trejo

Experts say religious exemptions offer an 'all too easy way' for people to skirt a vaccine mandate

Eric Feldman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and of medical ethics, said religious exemptions to vaccines can act as a catchall for people who simply don't want to get vaccinated.

"Religious exemptions provide an all too easy way for people who don't want to get vaccinated for some reason or other to wiggle out of a vaccine mandate and do so on the basis of what they claim to be a deeply held religious belief, which is largely unpoliced," Feldman told Insider. "So what we're doing is inviting people to make the easiest excuse they can to get out of vaccination."

"There will be an increase in religious exemption claims," Professor Arthur Caplan, who heads New York University's Division of Medical Ethics, said following President Joe Biden's ordered that employers with over 100 employees mandate vaccines or weekly COVID-19 tests.

Caplan, who noted that most major religious texts were written before the invention of vaccines, told Insider he has doubts over whether there is a legitimate basis for religious objections to vaccines.

"They are motivated by people looking for a way to avoid vaccination," he said. "They are not sincere expressions of religious belief. Even if they were, public health protection trumps religion in a plague."

Former evangelical pastor Curtis Chang, a professor at Duke Divinity School, told CNN that "in Christianity, there is no religious belief that justifies not taking the vaccine. There's no scripture. There's no creed. There's no theological tradition."

"It's only in the minds of some pastors and many Christians who have listened to misinformation and frankly are taking their cues from the culture wars and from politics and not from the Bible," Chang added.

Feldman said it's possible a case on religious exemptions could go as far as to the Supreme Court, which would test the robustness of the First Amendment.

"I think it's certainly possible that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine and not offering a religious exemption may end up not being found to run afoul of the law, but it also may end up in front of the Supreme Court with the Supreme Court saying a religious exemption here is a Constitutional requirement," Feldman said. "I just don't think we know the answer to that question."

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