(AP) – Thousands of Americans have sought religious exceptions to circumvent COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but they usually do so without encouraging major denominations and prominent religious leaders.
Pope Francis of the Vatican has defended vaccines as “the smartest solution to the pandemic.” The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has categorically stated that its followers will not be offered religious exceptions. Robert Jeffres, a conservative pastor of the Baptist megachurch in Dallas, expressed similar sentiments.
“Because there is no credible biblical argument against vaccines, we refused to offer exceptions to the few people who asked for them,” Jeffres told the Associated Press by e-mail. “People may have strong medical or political objections to vaccines prescribed by the government, but just because those objections are felt does not elevate them to religious beliefs that should be counted.”
Rabbi Sholam Lipskar of the Shul Orthodox Synagogue in Bal Harbor, Surfside, Florida, says he tells members of the congregation that vaccination should be a matter of free choice.
“But I always recommend them to get a medical opinion from a competent specialist,” he added. “In a serious case, they should get two matching medical reports.”
There are divisions in the Catholic Church in the United States, even though Pope Francis clearly supports vaccination. While some bishops have banned their priests from assisting in finding exceptions, other bishops and priests have provided letter templates for people claiming they refuse vaccines on Catholic soil.
“We have had many inquiries and we have helped many to process their letter / inquiry,” Fr.
“Vaccination is not a universal duty, and a person must obey the opinion of his informed and God-given conscience,” reads one of the letters provided by Stec. “If a Catholic comes to an informed and confident conscience that he or she should not get vaccinated, then the Catholic Church recognizes that a person has the right to refuse the vaccine.”
It is different in the Archdiocese of New Jersey, which is advised his priests do not support religious exceptions for their parishioners.
“I was asked about six times, and I refused,” said Father Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy and St. Joseph Parish in Hoboken.
Candice Buchbinder, a spokeswoman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the denomination is currently studying the issue of religious exceptions. She noted that previous ELCA documents opposed broad religious exclusions and viewed medicine as a “gift of God for the good of society”.
Even before the pandemic, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church clearly stated its position, adopting a resolution in June 2019 calling for the strengthening of state mandates for vaccination.
“The Executive Council does not recognize any claims for theological or religious exemption from vaccination for our members,” the resolution said.
However, someone from the denomination that promotes vaccines can still seek release based on individual conscience, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Ledewitz said he would advise a client who wants liberation from religion to simply say, “I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that God does not want me to take this vaccine.”
Employers have taken a variety of approaches to such arguments – some have given many exceptions and others, including US military services, gave very little.
Although the reasons for seeking religious exceptions are different, many Christians cite the remote link between COVID-19 vaccines and past abortions. Laboratory-grown cell lines derived from fetuses that were aborted decades ago were used to test Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and to grow viruses used to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. None of these vaccines contain fetal cells.
Vatican stated that obtaining these vaccines against COVID-19 is morally acceptable. Although he opposes research on abortion, he said any vaccine recipient is not to blame for their involvement, given how far they are from abortion.
While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the Vatican’s teaching, several bishops provided assistance to people seeking religious exclusion. So is the National Catholic Center for Bioethics, a think tank with prominent bishops on the board.
The center’s letter template says that individual Catholics may interpret church teaching to conclude that it is wrong for them to take any abortion-related medications.
Priest Tad Paholczyk, an ethics specialist and director of education at the center, noted that the Vatican clarifies that vaccines “should be voluntary.”
The church “strongly encourages the protection of the rights of conscience,” he said in a statement, criticizing the “one-size-fits-all” approach to employer mandates.
“Such decisions belong to individual patients who can assess their situation on the ground much more than any federal agency, politician or employer,” he said. “Exclusions of conscience from vaccine mandates should be available not only to Catholics but to all people.”
The assertion of religious exceptions upsets some who suspect there are non-religious motives.
“There are no clear Catholic objections to receiving any of the available vaccines against COVID-19,” said Michael Dim, an associate professor of bioethics and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said the Vatican had given detailed moral guidance on the acceptability of vaccines – given things like the lack of alternative vaccines and the benefits of fighting a deadly pandemic.
The relatively low level of vaccination among white evangelicals upsets Curtis Chang, a theologian whose organization Redeeming Babel launched the Christians and Vaccine project with evangelical and health groups, promoting vaccines against COVID-19 on biblical principles.
Seeking religious exceptions for many “is a seizure of religion to justify political or cultural positions, and it is very dangerous,” Chang said. “There is no real religious reason for seeking exemption, especially from employer mandates.”
He knows pastors who are in favor of vaccines, but they are under pressure from the faithful to hand them letters justifying the refusal of the vaccine on religious grounds. “I encourage pastors not to succumb to this.”
The view of such exceptions is “ultimately a danger to the long-term cause of religious freedom,” he said, because employers and courts may disregard employees ’sincerity when confronted with real-world situations where their faith must be taken into account.