INL employee says he’s being fired after his religious exemption to COVID vaccine is rejected
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AMMON — A local man says he is being discriminated against after the Idaho National Laboratory twice denied his religious exemption from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
John Bess is a distinguished researcher in nuclear science and technology at the INL. He also represents the United States as chairman for international benchmark projects with an organization in France. He’s worked at the INL since 2008 and is married with eight kids.
Bess originally received a termination notification last Monday, informing him that on Nov. 19 — the day nonrepresented employees are required to be fully vaccinated — he will no longer have a job. But on Friday afternoon, he was told he was being placed on administrative leave until his termination date.
“They (INL) like to term it as a ‘voluntary separation.’ They told us that we’re voluntarily quitting the laboratory for not getting vaccinated,” Bess told EastIdahoNews.com. “I didn’t sign my termination papers. They had somebody else do it for me.”
In October, Bess submitted a religious exemption that was seven pages long. It explained his religious beliefs and why he felt he should not be forced to get the vaccine to keep his job.
Bess is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has not opposed COVID-19 vaccines. In August, the First Presidency, the church’s highest governing body, sent a letter to its members urging them to get vaccinated, calling the vaccines “both safe and effective.”
Bess says he is following key principles taught in the church that include listening to personal revelation.
“When the Lord tells you through the Holy Ghost whether to do or not do something, I’ve learned that I really should follow,” he says.
A week after Bess filed the paperwork, he received an email from the Accommodations Office stating that Battelle Energy Alliance denied his request.
“The information provided in your request for religious exemption does not contain enough information upon which BEA can determine that your opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine is a religious belief rather than a personal preference based on morals, ethics or personal choice but supported by religious references,” the letter reads.
Bess said it was a “generic feeling letter.” He wrote a second letter and clarified his beliefs, thinking maybe his thoughts were misunderstood, but the answer did not change.
“We appreciate that this decision is likely both disappointing and frustrating to you as the distinction between a sincerely held religious belief and a belief sincerely held by a person who is religious is a difficult and nuanced distinction to draw,” the letter to Bess states. “Rest assured that this office has drawn those lines based on more than 100 years of case law issued by the courts of this nation.”
Bess was told if he felt like he was being discriminated against, he should know the office was not being discriminatory and he could take it up with his management. He said a lot of his managers had been supportive, so he went to the highest level he could in his chain to ask questions.
What he said he found out is, for the most part, unless a person belongs to a religion that is completely against vaccines, INL is unlikely to grant a religious exemption.
“I served a mission in Venezuela. I’ve been held at gunpoint by drunks with pistols and machetes. I’ve had militia hold me up with assault rifles pointed at me, and yet I felt like I had more respect for my religious beliefs in a third-world country than those of us at INL have received in the past couple of months from our own employer in a free country,” Bess said.
Messages were sent to INL employees explaining the expectations that people who get an exemption must follow, according to Bess. Those included wearing masks, social distancing, COVID testing and, if cases are high in the community, wearing a medically approved and fitted N95 mask.
“The expectation was that all of us would submit our exemption notifications, and then begin a sit-down process with management to discuss how to remain unvaccinated but still be able to work within the facility,” Bess noted. “Here’s a laboratory that prides itself on diversity and integrity, and there are a lot of people working at this lab that have those values, and honesty, it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s happening in the process.”
Bess is the sole provider for his family, and he isn’t sure what his future now entails as far as work. But what he is certain about is what this experience has taught him.
“Of anything I’ve learned out of this, it’s the importance of loving your neighbor and standing up. So many people have different beliefs and that’s what matters. We shouldn’t all be alike,” Bess said. “We should be helping each other and building each other up.”
INL spokeswoman Sarah Neumann declined to comment on the situation, telling EastIdahoNews.com, “The details of approvals and denials are sensitive personnel records, and as such, INL will not comment.”
Neumann said INL anticipates all discussions with its represented (union) workforce on vaccination implementation dates to be concluded by early this week.
“All employees are required to be vaccinated by contract unless there is an approved medical or religious accommodation,” Neumann added. “Accommodations may include weekly tests.”
Bess estimates about 500 nonrepresented employees will be terminated with him.
When asked how many nonrepresented employees are expected to be terminated by Nov. 19, Neumann said, “A very small percentage of our workforce has chosen to resign rather than comply with the COVID vaccine safety requirement.”