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Minnesota legislators want answers about Mayo's religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Mayo will issue written warnings to the unvaccinated Dec. 3. They will be terminated a month later if their status remains unchanged.

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A protester waves an American flag outside Mayo Clinic's Gonda Building during a protest against vaccine mandates Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in downtown Rochester. Mayo Clinic is requiring employees who are not exempt for medical or religious reasons to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by January of 2022. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

Four Minnesota legislators sent a letter to Mayo Clinic President Dr. Gianrico Farrugia last week raising concerns about the number of people who have been denied a religious exemption from the clinic's COVID-19 vaccine mandate and seeking details about its religious exemptions policy.

The Nov. 23 letter said that the legislators have been contacted by "dozens of people" who have been denied an exemption to Mayo's vaccine mandate.

"For several weeks, we have heard from many Mayo Clinic employees who are beyond distressed by the vaccine mandate that is being forced upon them," the four legislators write.

"These constituents and Minnesotans expressed their concerns when Mayo Clinic first announced that a vaccine mandate would be imposed on all staff. However, these frustrations have grown exponentially in recent weeks as Mayo Clinic has consistently rejected applications for religious exemptions to the mandate," the letter states.

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The letter is signed by four Republican House members: Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Rep. Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal Rep. Cal Bahr of East Bethel and Rep. Tim Miller of Prinsburg.
All four belong to the four-member New House Republican Caucus, a breakaway group formed three years that has been harshly critical of vaccine mandates and DFL Gov. Tim Walz's handling of the pandemic through his use of the state's emergency powers.

News of the letter comes only days before a Dec. 3 deadline set by Mayo Clinic for employees to be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs. Those who do not get the shot within the next day or so, or who do not have a valid medical or religious exemption, will be given a final written warning. Mayo will terminate them if they are still not in compliance with the mandate by Jan. 3, one month later. That could impact hundreds, if not thousands, of employees.

In a statement, a Mayo spokesperson said the vaccine requirement for employees is consistent with the clinic's mission.

"Making COVID-19 vaccination a requirement to work at Mayo Clinic will ensure we have a healthy workforce and that Mayo is a safe place to receive care -- just as our patients expect," said Mayo spokesperson Kelley Luckstein. "The Mayo Clinic enterprise staff vaccination rate for COVID-19 is at 90 percent. In consideration of the safety of our patients, staff, visitors and communities, Mayo Clinic transitioned to the next phase of its COVID-19 vaccination program, with vaccination required to continue to work at Mayo Clinic. A review process is available for staff to seek medical or religious exemptions to vaccination."

Mayo Clinic has declined to describe publicly the administration of its religious exemption policy. Under federal law, employees are allowed to ask for religious exemption to a vaccine mandate, but employers are allowed to ask questions and explore whether those beliefs are sincerely held.

And even if an employer concludes that the employee's religious beliefs are sincere, the employer can offer an accommodation that may not be the one the employee is seeking.

In an interview, Drazkowski, whose district stretches north and east of Rochester, said he was prompted to write the letter after being contacted by several dozen clinic employees, including those within his district, who are "worried about their future." He planned to write the letter by himself, but the three other members of his caucus asked to be included. When Drazkowski reached out to Mayo to get Farrugia's email address, Mayo declined to tell him.

Drazkowski said he believes it's morally wrong to stand in judgment and question the sincerity of a person's religious beliefs, although he doesn't dispute an employer's right under the law to ask.

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"We're concerned about people's livelihoods," Drazkowski said. "And you've got this Goliath of an employer who wants to be the arbiter of people's religious beliefs. And I don't think that it's right or fair or honest."

The GOP lawmaker said many Mayo employees were informed last week that their application for a religious exemption had been rejected and were given 48 hours to file an appeal, "so they got to further explain themselves."

Drazkowski said he is not anti-vax. He said he assisted his 82-year-old dad in getting both installments of the Pfizer vaccine and the booster shot. He said he is not vaccinated himself and doesn't plan to get the vaccine, because he believes he got the virus and enjoys "stronger immunization than any vaccine is going to give."

Drazkowski said he has not received a reply to the letter, but since it was sent by "snail mail," Farrugia may just be receiving it.

He conceded that beyond writing a letter registering his complaints, there is not much he can do to influence Mayo's policies. But, he said, legislators tend to have long memories.

"Mayo has come to the Legislature many times," he said. "It might not be as welcome of a reception the next time."

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