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Sept. 18, 2021

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Ploy or legitimate tactic? Group promotes religious exemption to Washington’s vaccine mandates

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Hundreds of Washingtonians are looking for a way to skirt state COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and one Gig Harbor-based organization led by a Washington State Patrol chaplain is willing to help.

Workshops offering advice on claiming the exemption are drawing large crowds and support from some notable Pierce County Republicans, including two state senators and three state representatives.

Leaders of the nonprofit organization One Washington, which is running the workshops in churches across Washington and Oregon, say they’re not doing anything political, just educational.

One Washington co-president Thomas Jonez is a Washington State Patrol chaplain and former owner of a closed vocational school that left hundreds of students with worthless diplomas and crippling loan debt in the mid-2000s. Jonez said his state duties and past business failures have nothing to do with his One Washington activities.

“You cannot be discriminated against because of your religion,” Jonez told crowds in Gig Harbor on Aug. 24 and Puyallup on Aug. 29 who’d come to hear him speak about the religious exemption. His audiences responded with applause and murmurs of “amen.”

At the church events, One Washington has offered tips and coaching on how state employees, health care workers and educators can evade a recent vaccine mandate from Gov. Jay Inslee. Whether the advice is effective is unclear.

Recent workshops at Experience Church in Puyallup and Harborview Fellowship in Gig Harbor were a mixture of legal seminar and revival meeting, complete with Powerpoint slides and a video. Thick crowds of people, mostly unmasked and seated shoulder-to-shoulder, have attended the workshops. One Washington claims thousands have participated thus far, either in person or through a livestream.

“This whole idea of religious exemption, you have to stand up for it,” Jonez said in the Gig Harbor workshop on Aug. 24. “This is our day. If we faint in front of the heat of the furnace, we have only ourselves to blame. Collective action is going to occur in office after office after office and employer after employer.”

The organization

One Washington is a nonprofit group formed in March 2021, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

In its articles of incorporation, the Gig Harbor-based group describes itself as “organized and operated to provide education and leadership to the citizens of the State of Washington regarding biblical and governmental principles incorporated by America’s Founders in the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution …”

The Christian-tinted legal seminars in Gig Harbor and Puyallup were led by One Washington’s board of directors, including Jonez and Harborview Fellowship pastor Mike Riches. One of the speakers included parishoner and Republican state Rep. Jesse Young of Gig Harbor. State records show Harborview and One Washington use the same address.

Jonez was a co-owner of the now defunct Business Computer Training Institute. BCTI once had seven campuses in Washington and Oregon, including sites in Tacoma, Fife and Lacey.

The institute was formed in 1985 and closed in 2005 amid government investigations and accusations that it preyed on low-income students, according to a News Tribune investigation.

Former students filed lawsuits against the school, claiming BCTI charged them thousands of dollars for an education that proved to be almost worthless. BCTI charged $11,000 for basic computer classes that were available elsewhere for much less or even free, according to the investigation.

The school settled with more than 1,300 former Washington students in a $13.25 million settlement and agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle lawsuits filed by Oregon students.

At the time, co-owners Jonez and Morrie Pigott declined repeated requests for interviews with The News Tribune. In written statements and court records, BCTI’s owners denied any wrongdoing. In one lawsuit settlement, the school “continues to deny that it engaged in any wrongful or unlawful practice.”

Today Jonez represents the state as a volunteer chaplain and runs a media group.

Jonez is “very active” with the chaplaincy program, said Darren Wright, a spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol. The Washington State Chaplain Foundation serves both the Washington State Patrol and Department Fish & Wildlife. Chaplains serve as peer counselors and assist first responders during a crisis. They also help with death notifications during large-scale crises.

Becoming a volunteer chaplain requires a background check and a polygraph test, Wright said. Jonez became a chaplain in March 2014 and is currently the assistant senior chaplain and vice president of WSCF. He responded to the 2017 Amtrak derailment in DuPont and the 2014 Oso mudslide, Wright said.

Asked if the State Patrol was concerned about Jonez’s involvement in the One Washington workshops, Wright said the agency was not aware of activities in his personal life. Jonez does not mention his affiliation with the State Patrol in the workshop.

“The key for us is if he’s representing himself as a member of the agency, even as a volunteer, we would have concerns and we would look into that,” Wright said.

Jonez also is the president and CEO of Plumbline Management & Plumbline Media Group, a for-profit company based in Gig Harbor. The company’s website described its work as creating “compelling truth-based messages in video, print, web, social media, training materials.”

The media company has done promotional social media posts for Young, who is running for state senate in 2022.

Throughout recent seminars, Jonez and other One Washington leaders said Young was fighting for peoples’ rights and encouraged attendees to vote for him.

State Public Disclosure Commission spokesperson Kim Bradford said there isn’t a bright line when it comes to determining whether a nonprofit is political. One Washington claims it is not a political organization in its articles of incorporation filed with the state.

“We would look to whether the stated purpose or content of the event was to support or oppose a candidate’s election,” she said in an email. “But such analysis is fact-specific, so we are unable to comment on any particular situation without our own review.”

Jonez said in an interview that the nonprofit is independent from Harborview Fellowship Church, which previously sued Inslee over COVID-19 gathering restrictions for churches.

During the Aug. 29 seminar in Puyallup, The News Tribune was directed by Experience Church leadership to leave the building, but not before a reporter briefly interviewed Jonez.

While the nonprofit shares the same address as Harborview Fellowship Church, Jonez said the relationship between the two is only that the church has hosted One Washington events.

Both Riches and Jonez are elders at Harborview Fellowship Church, and the church’s voicemail encourages individuals with questions about One Washington to leave a voicemail or visit the nonprofit’s site.

Young said in a conservative radio segment that One Washington is a coalition of elders from his church. He did not respond to The News Tribune’s requests for comment.

Jonez said the nonprofit was started to inform Washingtonians of their constitutional rights. When Inslee announced the vaccine mandate for state employees two weeks ago, Harborview Fellowship Church began hearing from individuals about their concerns and One Washington shifted its focus.

“One Washington is a response to needs expressed by people who didn’t know what to do,” he said.

He said the nonprofit has been invited by Washington churches to hold workshops. Attempts to reach Riches for comment were unsuccessful.

Jonez said he would not call the workshops anti-vaccine events but rather efforts to educate individuals on their “right to choose.”

He said he does not see the workshops as encouraging public employees to break Inslee’s vaccine mandate.

The workshop

Earlier this month, Inslee announced an emergency proclamation mandating vaccination for state workers, medical workers and firefighters. As hospitals filled up largely with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, it was later extended to educators, including teachers in both K-12 and higher education.

The workshop presentations in Puyallup and Gig Harbor included step-by-step instructions for requesting a religious exemption, including a professionally produced video that showed how to fill out employer’s questionnaires.

“The governor is trying to force you to get vaccinated and is using your employer to do it,” Young told the audience in Gig Harbor.

The Pierce County Republican Party said in a Facebook post that the Puyallup event was an “anti mandate educational event” and encouraged followers to sign up.

Jonez said to his Gig Harbor audience that his organization threw together the seminar in four days because “dozens and dozens of people were calling, many of them crying, fearful of losing their jobs.” The Gig Harbor church hall at 4819 Hunt St. NW was crammed. Outside, parked cars overflowed onto a grass field.

“In my entire career in the Legislature, I have not had so many people coming into my office wondering how they are going to make a living,” said Young, a four-term legislator who represents Gig Harbor and other nearby areas.

At the subsequent workshop in Puyallup, off-duty Pierce County sheriff’s deputies directed traffic. Parking overflowed into neighboring business parking lots. Few attendees wore masks. Guests wearing masks were told at the door face coverings were not required.

A handful of other Republican elected officials were in attendance at the Puyallup church for the workshop there, including state Senators Chris Gildon and Jim McCune, state Representative and Puyallup City Council member Cyndy Jacobsen and Pierce County Council member Amy Cruver.

One Washington said its Puyallup presentation was livestreamed to churches across Washington and Oregon, including Tacoma, Lynnwood, Kennewick, Spanaway, Graham and Spokane and told attendees Aug. 29 that 6,000 people have participated in the workshops.

In the workshop at Gig Harbor’s Harborview Fellowship Church, One Washington estimated there were 950 attendees. In an interview after that workshop, Jonez brushed off a question about the morality of endangering others by refusing the vaccine. It was “irrelevant to the discussion,” he said; everyone must make their own decisions on morality.

The two-hour seminar gave tips and examples of scripture to quote for those looking to file for religious exemptions. Among the advice: “keep it simple,” “avoid jargon,” “don’t be a jerk,” and don’t answer “trick questions.”

No particular religion is required to qualify for an exemption, Jonez told workshop attendees in both Gig Harbor and Puyallup.

“You don’t have to define your faith or defend your faith,” Jonez said. “You can literally say, ‘My faith is my faith, and after that, we’re done talking. I have a sincerely held religious belief; end of conversation.’”

“By the way,” he added as the audience laughed and applauded, “being an atheist can be a sincerely held religious belief.”

Inslee’s deputy communications director Mike Faulk advised caution.

“People have a lot of questions about this process, and it’s good that they’re seeking information, but they need to be confident they are getting accurate information about the process,” he said. “Anyone providing advice needs to be certain they are providing proper guidance and not misleading people into making decisions that go against their own interests as employees and community members.”

The Republican elected officials in attendance at the Puyallup workshop said the presentation was purely educational and did not encourage people to break the vaccine mandate.

Cruver said in an email that the presentation was very professional and clear. She said the speakers articulated that they were sharing knowledge, not legal advice. Asked if she is vaccinated against COVID-19, Cruver said the question was “not relevant to the conversation.”

“The evening was not about giving advice to break a state mandate,” she said. “The workshop’s focus was to inform about individual rights and mandates, not the shot.”

Jacobsen holds two offices: she’s a Puyallup City Council member and a state representative for Washington’s 25th Legislative District.

She said she felt the workshop simply gave people who have a religious objection to the vaccine an opportunity to speak up. Asked if she has been immunized, Jacobsen said, “I am not in favor of being required to disclose my personal medical information as a condition of employment or to anyone besides my medical care team.”

The mandate

The Delta variant is spreading rapidly across the state. August’s active COVID-19 cases were four times as high as in July, the Washington State Department of Health said. The seven-day average of hospital admissions has tripled, and more of them are children. Deaths related to the virus reported in Pierce County had reached 680 as of Sept. 3.

The governor’s proclamation requiring certain workers to become vaccinated includes an exemption for “sincerely held religious beliefs,” and medical conditions. All state employees, higher education, child care, and K-12 education employees, and most health care providers are to be fully vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment. Employers need to verify vaccination status of all employees, according to the mandate.

Hundreds protested the requirement on Aug. 29 in Olympia. Republicans have voiced alarm over the requirement.

Cruver, the Pierce County Council member for the Eatonville and Roy area, said she was concerned the governor’s actions could be interpreted as practicing medicine without a license and potentially interfering with medical advice between a patient and doctor.

“My (number one) concern is the governor choosing to dictate a mandate that ignores our constitutional protections,” she said in an email. “Having said that, I believe there is a great number of people who would find it objectionable for a government to determine it’s OK to push a foreign object into your arm, with a syringe loaded with an unknown and unapproved liquid, and dispense it into your body without your consent.”

Jacobsen told The News Tribune she has received hundreds of emails from constituents concerned about the mandated vaccine. She was not surprised by the huge turnout Aug. 29.

Jacobsen said if someone has a personally held belief against the vaccine, it should be enough to be exempted from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“People have had plenty of chances to change their mind. We’ve got people who are willing to lose their jobs over this,” she said. “I would like to see if people have sincerely held religious belief, that they would be given an exemption. I don’t see any other way we can handle it. We can’t judge the validity of those beliefs. We’ve got to really take people at face value. We need to not coerce people.”

State senators McCune and Gildon did not respond to requests for comment.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier is the top Republican in the county. He was not at the Puyallup workshop.

While he has been advocating for more Pierce County residents to be vaccinated for months, he has not publicly shared his thoughts on the mandated vaccination requirements. Dammeier’s office has not accepted The News Tribune’s request for an interview.

Questioning legality

Using slides, Young led the Puyallup and Gig Harbor audiences through a session on state and constitutional law, asserting that Inslee is usurping legislative powers by requiring state employees to be vaccinated.

“The extent to which the governor is exercising his emergency power is beyond the scope of law,” he said.

Harborview Fellowship has already lost that argument in court. The church sued Inslee and several other state officials in June 2020, seeking an injunction against the governor’s May 2020 order limiting church attendance to 25 percent capacity. The suit was dismissed in February, but the church claimed victory because the order was never enforced.

Inslee’s office said the fact that it is providing a religious exemption is proof that it is complying with federal law. Faulk said nothing in the governor’s mandates, exemption forms or the guidance violates the law.

“The state’s process for reviewing sincerely held religious belief accommodation requests complies with the law and guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” Faulk said. “This process includes the employee providing the employer information about the basis for their request so that they may work together to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is available.”

The U.S. Supreme Court record on pandemic restrictions has been mixed. In a 5-4 decision last November, it overturned California restrictions on religious gatherings. In the most recent case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused on Aug. 12 to block a plan by Indiana University to require students and employees to be vaccinated. It marked the first time the high court has weighed in on a vaccine mandate, according to the Associated Press. Barrett oversees the federal appeals court where the case is being heard and acted alone in her decision to allow the university to continue with its vaccine requirement.

Some companies have taken it upon themselves to require COVID-19 vaccination outside of mandates. They include the tech conglomerate Cisco, Citigroup bank, the investment firms Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens, Delta and United airlines, DoorDash, Ford, Google, Microsoft, Lyft and Uber, and Walmart, according to The New York Times.

Letters of support

The participating churches said they wanted to offer letters of support to send to employers affirming participants’ religious objections, but that in order to give the workshop “integrity,” they needed to present a slide on Christianity.

In both workshops, Harborview Fellowship Pastor Mike Riches explained the tenets of Christianity with a slide interpreting the scripture passage, “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He explained the passage and asked people who believed in it to pray. He said this “made sure there is integrity in the program,” before offering to provide attestation forms for those who ask.

A large QR code was projected behind the lectern for the audience to capture, prompting a forest of raised cellphones. The code sent attendees to a form to request an “attestation letter” of support from any of the 13 churches participating in the workshop.

Jonez said on Aug. 24 that 650 affirmation letters have already been sent from churches to employers.

The process to attain a religious exemption from the state-mandated vaccine for public workers includes a few steps.

Each religious exemption application requires individualized review, and the employer needs to engage with the employee in most cases, Faulk said. The process includes a review of the positions’ expectations and whether the employee can continue with accommodation to fulfill essential job duties.

An employee must seek a religious or medical exemption request from the employer, according to the state.

The exemption request form provided to The News Tribune by Inslee’s office asks an applicant to assert two initial statements: that they have a “sincerely held religious belief” that prevents them from receiving the vaccine, and that they have “never received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult.”

Once the request has been made, the employer must grant the exemption request and provide a second form with additional questions.

Questions include:

  • Explain how a COVID-19 vaccine conflicts with your asserted strongly held religious beliefs.
  • How long have you held these religious beliefs?
  • Do your religious beliefs include objections to other vaccines and/or medicines?

Some employers are requiring that employees sit for interviews about their request, Jonez said.

He advised people to refuse sit-down interviews with their employer, to request all questions in writing, and to record interviews if they occur.

Whether such tactics will work is unclear. The Governor’s Office said an incomplete application would not be given religious exemption.

“If an individualized assessment cannot be conducted or completed, the exemption cannot be granted,” Faulk said.

All state agencies and other entities that are subject to the order are prohibited from providing accommodations if:

  • The employer knows the request for religious exemption is based on false, misleading, or dishonest grounds or information;
  • The employer knows the application is based on the personal preference of the individual and not on an inability to get vaccinated because of a disability or a conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance; or
  • Without conducting an individualized assessment and determination of each individual’s need, and justification for an accommodation; i.e., “rubberstamping” accommodation requests.

The human resources department will process and determine whether the application is approved, Faulk said.

Jonez told the Puyallup audience that the process was intended for people who claim their resistance to the vaccine mandate is religious.

“This is a workshop to not be mandated to be vaccinated,” he said on Sunday. “It is not a workshop to play legal games with loopholes.”

One Washington in continuing to hold events throughout September. On Sept. 2, there was a workshop in Port Orchard, and the three more are planned for following weeks in Puyallup, Bainbridge Island and Vancouver.

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