By BETHANY BLANKLEY
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) – An obscure agency of the U.S. government, whose stated mission is to reduce recidivism and work with criminal justice partners to enhance public safety, will begin tracking all federal employees who file for religious exemptions to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on federal workers and contractors.
Religious rights groups question whether the tracking plan will be used to discriminate against federal employees and contractors of faith.
“The federal government has no business to create a database of people who file religious exemptions,” Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman Mat Staver told The Center Square.
Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom legal aid nonprofit, the state of Florida and other groups sued the Biden administration after the president on Sept. 9 issued by executive order a mandate that all federal employees and contractors receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment and/or contract with the federal government for services.
After Pres. Biden’s executive order was issued, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued guidance to federal agencies on how and when to grant religious or medical exemptions, which are required by law to be reasonably accommodated. It also provided guidance to agencies on how to track documents related to religious exemption requests.
Now, the federal government, through the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia (CSOSA), will oversee religious accommodation requests for all federal workers and contractors subjected to Pres. Biden’s mandate. CSOSA is a part of the executive branch.
Formed in 1997, the CSOSA “assumed the adult probation function from the Superior Court for the District of Columbia and the parole supervision function from the District of Columbia Board of Parole (which was disbanded).”
An independent entity within CSOSA that supervises pretrial defendants, the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, will now oversee the newly created “Employee Religious Exception Request Information System,” according to a public notice filed in the Federal Register.
The PSA will process religious accommodation requests and store information about every federal employee, volunteer, intern, contractor, and consultant who falls under the mandate and requests a religious exemption.
“The primary purpose of the secured electronic file repository is to collect, maintain, use, and – to the extent appropriate and necessary – disseminate employee religious exception request information collected by the agency in the context of the federally mandated COVID-19 vaccination requirement,” the notice states. And the PSA will use a secured electronic file repository “to log, track, and manage employee religious exception request information while leveraging technology to protect and secure the privacy of the records maintained in the system.”
Records may include an employee’s religious affiliation, date of birth, job title, home address, age, where they work, and copies of their accommodation requests and notes and decisions related to them, according to the notice.
Unless Pres. Biden’s federal employee vaccine mandate is struck down by the courts, or CSOSA’s proposed rule is halted by a judge, the new tracking system is slated to begin Feb. 10.
Unlike other federal agencies’ public comment periods that often last months, CSOSA’s lasts for 28 days. The Federal Register states the “new system will be effective upon publication. New or modified routine uses will be effective February 10, 2022.”
But a federal agency that oversees parolees and works with criminal justice partners now being tasked with tracking religious exemptions is raising red flags for those who’ve fought against an administration that hasn’t been open to those seeking religious exemptions. In a lawsuit challenging Pres. Biden’s vaccine mandate on members of the U.S. military, a number of Navy SEALS claim they requested religious exemptions, but were outright rejected. They allege their requests were not taken seriously enough.
Liberty Counsel argues CSOSA’s tracking plan serves no legitimate or lawful purpose and could be misused to discriminate against people of faith.
“The only possible purpose this could have is to first identity and then to discriminate against people of faith. Knowing who files for religious exemptions serves no legitimate or lawful purpose,” Mr. Staver told The Center Square. “A federal agency compiling a database of people who take their [faith] seriously sets a bad precedent, which is not surprising with the Biden administration that has been hostile to religious freedom.”
Requests for comment from CSOSA were not immediately returned.
Three years after it was formed, CSOSA was certified as a federal executive branch agency in 2000 by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. According to its website, the agency’s scope doesn’t appear to include vaccine mandate enforcement or religious exemption oversight.
Its stated mission is to “Effectively supervise adults under our jurisdiction to enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, support the fair administration of justice, and promote accountability, inclusion and success through the implementation of evidence-based practices in close collaboration with our criminal justice partners and the community.”
Its stated goals are to “reduce recidivism by targeting criminogenic risk and needs using innovative and evidence-based strategies; integrate offenders into the community by connecting them with resources and interventions; strengthen and promote accountability by ensuring offender compliance and cultivating a culture of continuous measurement and improvement; and support the fair administration of justice by providing timely and accurate information to criminal justice decision-makers.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against Pres. Biden’s private sector employer vaccine mandate, it hasn’t yet accepted challenges to the federal worker mandate. The lawsuits against the mandate continue in their respective jurisdictions.