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Air Canada plane takes off from Montreal Trudeau Airport in Montreal on Dec. 5.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada’s airlines are urging the federal government to relieve them of the responsibility for approving passenger applications for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

In a letter to members of Parliament, the National Airlines Council of Canada says the government – not private companies – should be in charge of approving or rejecting faith-based travel requests from people who are not vaccinated against the deadly virus.

“Individual companies in the private sector should not be responsible for determining whether a person’s religious beliefs are ‘sufficient’ to merit an exemption from a federally mandated obligation related to public health, nor do companies have the means to evaluate a person’s religious convictions,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The airlines are reacting to a new federal rule, effective as of Nov. 30, that requires all air and rail passengers older than 11 who are travelling within Canada or leaving the country to show proof they are fully vaccinated. The rule is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, as the Omicron variant threatens to strain hospital capacity and spurs fears of new lockdowns.

Travellers whose “sincere religious belief” prevents them from being vaccinated are exempt from the rule. Exemptions also apply to other groups, including people who need to fly in order to access essential medical services, people who are travelling to and from remote Canadian communities, and people who are catching connecting flights in Canada on their way to other countries.

Passengers seeking religious exemptions must apply to their airlines three weeks before travelling, and they have to present negative COVID-19 test results before boarding. “Your request to your airline or railway must clearly demonstrate your sincere religious belief, how it prevents you from being vaccinated, and be signed by a Commissioner of Oaths,” the government says on its website.

The airlines say they are in no position to judge whose beliefs prevent them from getting their shots.

“Only the state itself can fulfill that responsibility, a responsibility that by definition gives rise to Charter and privacy issues,” the National Airlines Council says in its letter. “If nothing else, it demands a consistency of process and application across the country that can only be provided by a single federal entity and decision-making body.”

The council lobbies on behalf of Air Canada, WestJet Airlines and other airlines.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Air Canada, said the airline has had about 100 requests for religious exemptions since Dec. 1. Many of those were for more than one person, he said. “And we expect more.”

Air Transat has received about 20 requests, according to spokesperson Christophe Hennebelle. “It’s too early to comment on the acceptation or rejection rate,” he said.

It is not clear which religions and their followers are opposed to vaccinations, and on what grounds. The federal government’s website links to messages of support for vaccines from several religious organizations, including those representing Islam, Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Christian Science.

The heads of the Mennonite Church Canada told adherents in October the group supports getting vaccinated. “We wish to clarify that there is nothing in the Bible, in our historic confessions of faith, in our theology or in our ecclesiology that justifies granting a religious exemption from vaccinations against COVID-19,” the leaders said in a statement. “We have heard concerns from some members of our constituency regarding the vaccines. However, we do not believe these concerns justify an exemption from COVID-19 vaccinations on religious grounds from within a Mennonite faith tradition.”

Sau Sau Liu, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, did not address a question about why airlines are responsible for administering the exemptions. “Transport Canada continues to engage with industry on the … requirements and provide them with the necessary guidance,” she said by e-mail.

The National Airlines Council and WestJet did not respond to requests for comment.

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