DC Council member questions religious exemption for COVID vaccines

One member of the D.C. Council questioned why the city has a religious exemption in place for COVID-19 vaccines Friday.

“Would the Department of Health support removing the religious exemption from our vaccine policies entirely?” asked At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman during a weekly call with city administrators. “Why should we keep the religious exemption?”

Patrick Ashley, with DC Health, said he didn’t have an answer: “That’s something that we continue to discuss about how we continue vaccination compliance.”

He said that the District is looking at what’s being done across the U.S. on vaccines. And added that “we want to look at the least restrictive manner first to get people vaccinated.”

The deadline for D.C. government workers to get vaccinated was Thursday.

Ashley said the city is just starting to look at the data, and “based on that, we’ll make decisions about whether or not it’s an issue that we need to address.”

Some states, including California, do not allow for religious exemptions, Silverman said.

“I think it’s something we should consider as a city,” she added, before questioning why D.C. doesn’t have a vaccine mandate in place for school students eligible to get a shot and if health officials would support it.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Chris Rodriguez didn’t say whether a mandate for students was being considered, but did say that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s position on vaccines is clear: “The best defense we have against this virus, and the way that we’re going to get out of this, is to be vaccinated.”

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said in a tweet Friday that she is working to organize a public roundtable on a student vaccination requirement.

Rodriguez went on to say that getting kids into school remains the top priority.

Ashley said that strict approaches to the vaccine cause “people to be even more suspicious.”

At a separate event, Bowser slammed the D.C. Council over its efforts to expand access for virtual learning for public schools. She said she absolutely does not support any efforts to disrupt in-person learning.

Bowser said that if children can safely go to birthday parties and restaurants, they can go to school.

“We have certainly invested for more than a year making sure buildings are safe and safest places for kids,” she said.

When asked about parents complaining child services are being called if they keep kids home too long over COVID concerns, Bowser said: “There are parents who are thrilled that their kids are returning to in person learning.”

The council is expected to introduce the emergency legislation to address parents’ concerns next week.

In a draft of the legislation that Chairman Phil Mendelson shared Thursday, virtual learning would be available to D.C. public or charter school students if they have a high-risk medical condition or live with someone who has a high-risk condition.

Under the current policy, only students whose doctors attest that they have a condition requiring them to learn remotely are eligible to do so.

The proposed legislation would also broaden the excused absence policy, something council members have called for after learning of parents who were referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency because they didn’t send their kids to school, citing coronavirus-related safety concerns.

WTOP’s Shayna Estulin and Scott Gelman contributed to this report.

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Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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