Emails: State sought to make religious vaccine exemption 'as narrow as possible'

General Counsel for Gov. Jay Inslee did not want to allow for religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, but said any such exception should be "as narrow as possible," according to emails obtained through public disclosure. 

The emails outline how the state’s vaccine mandate took shape quickly from late July to early August – transforming dramatically along the way. 

The first mention of a vaccine mandate came in a July 27 email from the Governor's Office to the Attorney General's Office. The email, which included the subject line "Mandating vaccines," contained a 20-page attachment from the Attorney General’s Office. The document was fully redacted, but subsequent emails detailed early iterations of the mandate. 

In an Aug. 3 email to staff with the Attorney General’s Office, Governor’s Office General Counsel Kathryn Leathers wrote:

"The decision has been made. We are now definitely going in the direction of a mandatory vaccine for all employees in certain areas of employment: public and private healthcare, congregate settings (like DOC and LTC facilities), and state employees who work for the Exec cabinet. We may branch out to other separately electeds’ employees, but we will start with our staff."

Of possible exemptions, Leathers wrote: "medical for sure; and religious (if we have to; if yes, as narrow as possible)."

By the next day, the plan had changed dramatically. 

Q13 News redacted the above image to remove email addresses.

Caitlyn Jekel, the senior policy advisor on labor for the Governor’s Office, wrote in an email that the executive team decided to include an option allowing workers to opt-out of the vaccine in favor of weekly COVID-19 testing.

"State government will start with a testing strategy option and the governor will announce an October 1st review, with the potential to shift to a full mandate at that time," Jekel wrote. 

Patricia Lashway, the deputy director of the Office of Financial Management, seemed perplexed. 

"This is a big shift from yesterday so I want to be sure I understand," she wrote. "This is a huge shift (and) has implications and will require time for infrastructure building. Understood?"

The change would be short-lived. 

Two days later, on Aug. 6, weekly testing was off the table. 

"I'm in a meeting with the Governor and Exec (staff) right now and new decisions have been made," Leathers wrote. "Mandatory vaccine for public & private health care plus exec cabinet agency employees, no test-out option."

At one stage in the discussions, Senior Assistant Attorney General Eric Sonju suggested a different approach for healthcare workers versus the staff of the governor’s executive teams. 

Sonju argued that the vaccine mandate served different purposes in different workplaces: 

"My understanding of requiring health care and long-term care provider employees to get vaccinated is to protect patients/residents and protect the capacity of our system from being threatened by continued spread. The purpose isn’t primarily to get vaccination numbers up in that population in order to fight COVID-19 more generally," Sonju wrote. "However, for executive cabinet agency employees, the purpose really is to get vaccine numbers up and having the state lead by example. So maybe a bifurcated approach would make sense. Health care and long-term care provider employees are required to get vaccinated and their employers are prohibited from letting them enter the workplace or provide in-person services if they don’t. Executive cabinet agency employees are required to get vaccinated by 10/18 and the agencies are prohibited from employing them if they do not. That said, if the preference is to stay with a prohibition on employment for all, I think it is certainly defensible."

Even as the final version of the vaccine mandate took shape ahead of Inslee’s Aug. 9 announcement, the state had yet to determine who would qualify for a religious exemption and to what extent the state would judge the sincerity of such beliefs. 

In an Aug. 19 interview on "Q13 News This Morning," Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal caused a stir when he suggested that religious exemptions were open to broad interpretations.

"It has the ability for people to say, ‘I just don’t do vaccines,' and we’re going to honor that," Reykdal said. 

His remarks drew a swift response from the Governor’s Office, with a spokesperson saying OSPI planned to clarify the Superintendent’s remarks. 

"There are no personal or philosophical exemptions," said Press Secretary Mike Faulk. "The process for applying for religious exemptions is still under development."

On August 23, Q13 News obtained forms from two state employees – one with the Washington State Department of Transportation, the other with the Department of Social and Health Services. Both forms detailed what appeared to be the same process for determining a religious exemption. It relied on two "yes or no" questions:

1) You, [employee name], assert that you have a sincerely held religious belief or religious conviction that prevents you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

2) You, [employee name] affirm/agree that you have never received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult. 

Faulk with Inslee’s office confirmed that the forms reflected the state’s direction for confirming or denying religious exemptions. He added that the second question would likely require follow-up inquiries. 

"The purpose of this question is to understand whether there was a history of declining medical treatment or vaccination based on an applicant’s religious belief," he said "If they answer no, the HR professionals would engage in follow up questions to better understand the person’s history, such as demonstrating changes they have made as an adult based on those beliefs. We understand people’s religious views may change over time."

State employees who apply for an exemption and are denied face a tight timeline to meet the October 18 deadline to get vaccinated. It can take up to six weeks from your first dose to the point when you’re considered fully vaccinated.

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