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Hundreds of San Diego cops refused COVID vaccines. Now, some don't want tests either

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hundreds of San Diego police officers got to skip the COVID vaccine because they said it was against their religion. But it meant that they had to get tested for COVID regularly. And now, some officers argue their religion says they can't even get tested. From member station KPBS, Claire Trageser reports.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: On a cloudy afternoon in April, San Diego police officers stopped a man for smoking in a public park.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: What brought you over here today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just using the bathroom.

TRAGESER: The man lied about his name and birthdate, so they decided to arrest him and ended up tackling him to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Put your hands behind your back.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Behind your back.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Put your hands behind your back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stop. Get off me.

TRAGESER: Police body camera video shows two officers lying on top of the man. Their faces are next to his face, and they weren't wearing masks.

REBECCA FIELDING-MILLER: The police officer is not vaccinated, is declining testing and is not masked. That could be a really dangerous situation for people.

TRAGESER: Rebecca Fielding Miller is an epidemiologist at UC San Diego.

FIELDING-MILLER: For many, many people, it's not voluntary to interact with the police.

TRAGESER: San Diego requires all city employees to be vaccinated for COVID. But records requests from KPBS show many police officers argued vaccines are against their religion. The city approved those exemptions, but required them to take weekly COVID tests. The records, which had the officers' names removed, go on to reveal that some say testing goes against their religion, too. They claim the test swabs contain the carcinogen ethylene oxide. But it's not actually present on the swabs. It's used as a gas to sterilize them. They point to passages from First Corinthians about bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit to bolster their claim.

KARA LYONS-PARDUE: It really strains credulity that this would have any application there at all.

TRAGESER: Kara Lyons-Pardue is a New Testament professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. She says there's a great irony in using the Bible to justify avoiding some small chance of harm.

LYONS-PARDUE: When, you know, so much of the New Testament is focused and really fixated on a testimony to a savior who was willing to undertake death and then told Christians that they would need to take up their cross and follow.

TRAGESER: The city of San Diego is still negotiating with the police officers. But for now, they remain on the job, unvaccinated and untested.

TODD GLORIA: I think we have been exceedingly patient with these folks.

TRAGESER: Mayor Todd Gloria says the city has to work with the police union before taking any action.

GLORIA: If folks continue to resist being compliant with our adopted vaccine mandate, we will have to terminate their employment with the city, and that would be regrettable.

TRAGESER: Police in many other cities - New York, Chicago, Seattle - are also using religion to push back on COVID vaccination requirements. But a religious exemption for testing is going too far, according to Larry James. He's the general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police.

LARRY JAMES: I doubt very seriously whether that's going to be a successful argument.

TRAGESER: He thinks for these officers, it's not really about religion. It's more a philosophical standpoint.

JAMES: Not just that I don't want the government to tell me what to do and what not to do, it says, I want to be the person who decides.

TRAGESER: But there is no deciding for most people who come in contact with officers. They don't have a choice whether to interact with police.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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