For months, evangelicals leaders ranging from Bible study author Beth Moore to the former SBC president J.D. Greear have encouraged believers to get the COVID vaccine. And polling reveals that roughly 6 in 10 white evangelicals have received it.
But President Biden's new push to mandate the vaccine has many in the pews opposed for reasons of faith, and they're seeking guidance on how to claim a religious exemption.
Religious freedom advocates like the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and Liberty Counsel say their phone lines have been buzzing. Liberty Counsel reports 500 calls a day on the topic and hundreds joining daily conference calls with attorneys to understand the process.
Legal scholars say an individual's sincerely held belief qualifies someone to object on religious grounds.
Professor Brad Jacob at the Regent University School of Law says it's easier to claim a religious exemption if there's a church or denomination that shares the belief, but he cautions that it's not necessary.
"The Supreme Court has made it very clear that religious convictions that merit protection are individual," he said. "I don't have to have a church behind me if I say I have this conviction that I can't do 'x,' whatever 'x' happens to be."
Roger Severino, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and former director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health & Human Services, notes that Title 7 of employment discrimination law entitles people to religious accommodations.
"What we want to avoid is employers, and worst of all, the federal government, becoming some sort of Star Chamber inquisitorial board, probing into people's religious beliefs," he said. "If a person says, 'these are my reasons – I disagree with abortion, the sanctity of human life. I know that the aborted fetal cells are part of the testing,' that should be it. That should be case closed on whether or not they have a sincere belief. You don't need a letter from your pastor."
But Oklahoma pastor and Senate candidate Jackson Lahmeyer is doing just that, telling people if they join his church, he'll sign their exemption. "It's not an anti-vaccine thing. It's a pro-freedom thing," he explained.
RFI Communications Director Nathan Berkeley cautions people to sort out their reasons for opposing the vaccine and avoid pursuing the religious exemption if motivated by politics.
"A lot of people have political views about the vaccines and vaccine mandates which are deeply held which are based on some principles that they take very seriously – but that doesn't necessarily mean that those principles at play are intertwined or linked with their religious convictions," he said. "We do encourage everyone as they look at this issue generally to keep those two things separated."
In the months ahead, untold numbers could claim them. Already, close to 3,000 Los Angeles Police Department employees have indicated they plan to seek either religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine.
And the lawsuits have begun. The White House may have a hard time telling the courts that OHSA has the right to mandate the shot for private businesses.
Severino and Jacob say the vaccine mandate is not a typical OSHA regulation.
"Think about what OSHA's about. It's about chemical exposures in the workplace, hard hat regulations on construction sites," Severino said. "This is conduct outside of the workplace that they say must be part of the workplace. This is a real stretch."
It's unclear how the Supreme Court might eventually rule, especially with weakened religious protections after its 1990 Smith ruling.
"The government can win if it has a compelling interest – really, really important interest – and there's no way to accomplish that without infringing on liberty," said Jacob. "And when you're looking at a pandemic and people dying, the government is certainly going to try very hard, even if they're under the tough standard, they're going to argue that we meet that standard."
It's a high-stakes fight that could severely weaken or empower religious liberty in the months and years ahead.