COMMENT: Lawyers at the Meese Center of the Heritage Institute remind the Biden administration of its duty to recognize and protect conscience rights in the federal workplace.
Should federal workers and contractors be concerned that the Biden administration is tracking anyone seeking a religious exemption for COVID-19 vaccinations? A watchdog group thinks they should.
Earlier this year, Sarah Parshall Perry and GianCarlo Canaparo, attorneys at the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center, noticed that the District of Columbia’s Pretrial Services Agency had created something called the “Employee Religious Exception Request Information System.”
According to PSA’s announcement in the Federal Register, the system would retain “personal religious information collected in response to requests for religious accommodation for a religious exception to the federally mandated vaccination requirement in the context of an emergency.” public health or similar health and safety incident”.
That’s right: personal religious information, collected on behalf of an administration that is not particularly friendly to people of faith. Perry and Canapro pointed out that the agency did not explain why it needed to create this list, except to say that it would “help the agency collect, store, disseminate and dispose of information about exemption requests. employee religious beliefs collected and retained by the Agency.” He also did not reveal what he would do with the information.
All very pointed observations.
A week later, Perry and Canaparo released a report that found that at least 19 federal agencies had created or proposed a list of religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine. Agencies include the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, and Department of Treasury, to name a few.
“It now appears that a growing number of federal agencies maintain and preserve names, religious information, personally identifiable information, and other data stored in lists from multiple government agencies,” they wrote.
Each of the announcements cited President Biden’s executive order “Require vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 for federal employees” and his executive order “Ensure adequate COVID safety protocols for federal contractors” as the reason for the new practice. And all were created “in accordance with the Privacy Act 1974”.
For those of you unfamiliar, the Privacy Act regulates the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals. The purpose of the law is “to strike a balance between the government’s need to preserve information about individuals and the right of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy resulting from the collection and disclosure of such information. records by federal agencies”. Under the law, every person has the right – enforceable in court – “of access to federal agency records of which that person is the subject, except to the extent that such records (or portions thereof) are protected from disclosure by one of nine exemptions.” The law only allows a “person” to request access only to their own “records,” and only if those records are maintained by the agency as part of a “system of records.” Disclosure of those records without an individual’s written consent is illegal unless a specific exception listed in the law applies.
So what are we to make of what, on the face of it, looks like a disturbing attempt to keep track of religious believers who hold views that trouble the government?
On January 24, several Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to President Biden that read, “The actions your administration is taking to target federal employees who have requested a religious exemption from the vaccination mandate will have an immediate chilling effect on the fiscal year.” by an employee of his constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion. They called on the president to provide a response by February 11 outlining steps he was taking to “ensure that the federal government does not target Americans based on their decision to seek a religious exemption to the mandate of the vaccine”.
My take on this is that one must distinguish between this administration’s authoritarian use of vaccination mandates (the Supreme Court recently stopped it from imposing them on private workplaces as well as federals) and the creation of this list.
The latter need not have sinister implications. Indeed, you could argue that federal agencies need a system to compile accurate information about requests for religious exemptions. This can ensure that requests are taken seriously and people are not quietly coerced into complying with mandates that offend their conscience.
It is a paradox that sometimes believers need access to official bureaucratic tools in order to follow the bureaucratic attempts of a hostile government to follow us. So for now, I’m keeping an open mind about this list. But, that said, we still have to be grateful to heritage- and freedom-loving elected officials for keeping us in the loop. They remind the administration of its duty to recognize and protect conscience rights in the federal workplace. As I explained earlier, they have the law on their side. Even so, they must remain vigilant.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of Consciousness Project.