Ohio students cite ‘religious concerns’ for exemption from vaccine mandate

The majority of requests have been approved, a 19 News investigation shows
Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 9:55 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 4, 2021 at 11:20 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Thousands of students at three Ohio universities have requested exemptions from vaccine mandates, and university authorities have granted a majority of those requests, a 19 News investigation shows.

Universities across Ohio released exemption forms shortly after they announced they would begin mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.

An analysis of the number of exemption applications provided by Akron University, Kent State University, and the Ohio State University shows that far more applications have been approved than denied.

At last check, the University of Akron says it’s received and reviewed 85 exemption applications.

A committee approved 59% of them and denied the remaining 41%.

Kent State University says it’s just started the review process and has so far approved 42% and denied 10% of the 168 requests from students.

Meanwhile, 79 applications are pending.

“Almost all of the denials are from requesters not completing the forms per the instructions (not filling out all of the fields, not signing the forms, having pages missing from their submission, not attaching a request form at all, etc.),” according to a Kent State spokesperson.

As of Sept. 29, more than 89,000 students, faculty, and staff at the Ohio State University have submitted proof of vaccination or requested an exemption, the university said.

About 95% of the responses so far have been to submit vaccination records.

That means the remaining 5% requested exemptions.

Ohio State says its review board approved about 70% of the 3,050 student exemption applications that came in last week.

The board has only denied 3% of student requests, largely also due to missing documents or incomplete forms, according to a spokesperson.

School officials say if a student is denied, he or she can re-submit their application and try again to get an exemption.

Students can request a medical, religious, or conflict of conscience exemption.

Alex Mortensen, a student at the University of Akron, wants to remain unvaccinated but hasn’t signed one of the forms because he has concerns about the rights he may be giving up if he did.

However, he knows several people who have already submitted for an exemption.

“It’s mostly because they feel they don’t need it,” he said.

Mortensen leads an organization called Turning Point on campus and gave us insight into what the students who have submitted exemption request forms are saying on them.

“I think a few of them really have other concerns but are putting ‘religious concerns’ because they are afraid they might not get it otherwise,” said Mortensen.

19 Investigates asked him if it is fair to say that some students may be lying about a religious conviction.

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” he said.

We don’t have a breakdown showing which category the most exemption requests came in for or whether one reason students are listing is being accepted more than another.

But it’s a topic of conversation in the Facebook group College Students Against Mandatory COVID Vaccines.

In the group, you can read along as Kent, Akron, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Ohio University students and parents coach each other through the exemption process.

Many say the easiest way to succeed is to request the religious exemption, and if you can — get a pastor to sign off on it.

Reverend Terry Williams says he’s been approached to see if he would sign off on several “religious exemptions” from the vaccine.

“It’s just very odd that people are asking me to be an arbitrator of their convictions, religious beliefs,” he said. “I have no authority officially from the state at all. So, I don’t know that I have any particular skill to be able to speak to somebody’s religious views about the vaccine any better than they can speak for themselves. But, for some people, that apparently holds weight.”

Rev. Williams says he refused to sign the document.

“I don’t think your religious values and your religious convictions matter when it comes to public policy and public health,” he said.

However, 19 investigates discovered that some leaders apparently do.

One parent posted a link in the Facebook group, saying she got a pastor’s signature on a religious exemption form simply by filling out and sending it to the provided email address.

“It is a wild west situation out here,” Williams said.

Rev. Williams is part of an interfaith organization called Faith in Public Life that includes Christian clergy, leaders in the Jewish faith, Imams, and humanist leaders.

“It’s a broad, broad organization of faith leaders from all over,” he said.

We asked Williams if there is any religious leader in the group who’s said it would be against their religion to get the vaccine.

“None that I am aware of,” Williams replied.

While Rev. Williams wants universities to stop allowing religious exemptions to the mandate, Mortensen believes it would just be better to get rid of the mandate altogether.

“I think its worrying to me when people feel the need to cover up what they feel just to try to get what they need,” Mortensen said.

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