Last weekend, reports surfaced that Brooklyn-based activist and religious leader the Rev. Kevin McCall was giving letters of religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine to members of his church. In an interview with the AmNews, McCall wanted to set the record straight and shed light on the growing number of people seeking exemptions from vaccine mandates.
Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all of the nearly 340,000 city workers will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September or submit to testing for COVID-19 weekly. Those who do not comply with the mandate could face being out of work.
Hundreds of city workers protested outside City Hall last week after the mayor announced a new mandate requiring public school teachers to have at least the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. Protesters said they shouldn’t be forced to get the vaccine.
A published report indicated that McCall was giving letters of exemption to parishioners from his small Brooklyn church, the Crisis Action Center, and others trying to avoid the vaccine. However, McCall said that he’s only given letters to about 40 of the over 60 members of his church who say it’s against their religious belief to get any vaccination.
“It’s off of the scripture that their body is a living sacrifice and that it’s their temple,” he said. “Based on the scriptures they provide, I provide them a letter that is addressed to them with their name on it that says they are exempt.”
The letter is meant to be presented to an employer, school or entity with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The letter is not meant for the city’s indoor vaccine mandate at restaurants, entertainment venues or gyms.
McCall said he has not given out any letters to people who are not members of his religious institution, even though they have been requested. Those who want to become members simply to get the letter of exemption are also turned away. He also said he’s not giving out any kind of fraudulent vaccination cards.
Once word got out that McCall was writing the letters, he received numerous calls from people wanting one and they were all turned away. McCall said that many of the people who have called him are city workers looking for a way to avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine due to hesitancy.
“When God created this world he gave us the gift of freedom of choice and it’s up to us to choose what we want to do to our body, our mind and our soul,” he said. “If you are a true believer and you want to receive a religious exemption from your clergy leader that you’re a member of, you have the right to do so.”
McCall added that he encourages people to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or get tested regularly and wear masks.
Since vaccine mandates were announced there have been questions over their legality. In previous interviews with the AmNews, civil rights lawyer Joshua Blane of the Gray Law Firm said the city failed to consider religious exceptions when mandating vaccines. Blane added that vaccine mandates could violate people’s First Amendment religious freedoms.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 vaccine mandates are a matter of state or other applicable law. The agency cites Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states “once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from taking the vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship.”
The AmNews reached out to the city about religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine and did not get a response at press time. On Tuesday, city officials addressed the issue and McCall during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily press briefing.
“I know Reverend McCall, I respect him. I appreciate him. I was very saddened to see that. I think that’s a mistake,” de Blasio said. “I think it should stop. Those, quote unquote, exemptions are not going to be honored. They’re just, that’s not the way to do things. And so I think people should recognize [it’s] so important to get vaccinated; leaders of veritably every faith tradition have stepped forward, encouraged vaccination.”
President and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals Mitchell Katz said his office has not seen people bringing exemption letters and that no one can grant religious exemptions to the vaccine.
“Religious exemptions are based on someone’s personal, sincerely held beliefs,” he said. “No one can give you an exemption.”