By the thousands, Americans have sought religious exemptions in order to circumvent COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but generally they do so without the encouragement of major faiths and prominent religious leaders.
“Since there is no credible biblical argument against vaccines, we have refused to offer exemptions to the handful of people who have requested them,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. . “People may have strong medical or political objections to government-mandated vaccines, but just because those objections are strongly felt does not elevate them to a religious belief that should be heeded.”
Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of the Bal Harbor Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Surfside, Florida, said he told congregants that vaccination should be a matter of choice.
“But I always recommend that they get medical advice from a competent professional,” he added. “In a serious matter, they should get two concurring medical opinions.”
Within the US Catholic Church, there are divisions – even though Pope Francis has been clear in his support for vaccinations. While some bishops have prohibited their priests from helping to request exemptions, other bishops and priests have provided sample letters to people claiming conscientious objection to vaccines on Catholic grounds.
“We have received many requests and have helped a number with their letter/request,” Reverend Bob Stec of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, said via email.
“Vaccination is not a universal obligation and a person must obey the judgment of his own informed and certain God-given conscience,” reads one of the letters provided by Stec. “If a Catholic comes to an informed and sure-minded judgment that he should not receive a vaccine, then the Catholic Church recognizes that the person…has the right to refuse the vaccine.”
It’s different in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, which has advised its priests not to accept religious exemptions for their parishioners.
“I was asked about six times and refused,” said Reverend Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph parish in Hoboken.
Candice Buchbinder, spokesperson for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the denomination is currently investigating the issue of religious exemptions. She noted that previous ELCA documents opposed broad religious exemptions and viewed medicine as “a gift from God for the good of the community.”
Even before the pandemic, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church made its position clear by passing a resolution in June 2019 calling for stricter government vaccination mandates.
“The Executive Council does not recognize any requests for theological or religious exemption from vaccination for our members,” the resolution reads.
However, someone from a faith that promotes vaccines can still apply for an exemption based on individual conscience, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Ledewitz said he would advise a client wanting a religious exemption to simply say, “I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that God doesn’t want me to take this vaccine.”
Employers have taken a wide variety of approaches to these arguments – some granting many exemptions while others, including the US military, have granted very few.
Although the reasons for seeking religious exemptions vary, many Christians have cited the remote connection of COVID-19 vaccines to past abortions. Cell lines grown in the lab from fetuses aborted decades ago have been used to test Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and to grow viruses used to make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. None of these vaccines contain fetal cells.
The Vatican has said receiving these COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable. Although he opposes abortion research, he said any vaccine recipient is not guilty of participating in it, given their remoteness from the abortions involved.
While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has echoed Vatican teaching, several bishops have helped people apply for religious exemptions. The same goes for the National Catholic Center for Bioethics, a think tank with prominent bishops on its board.
The center’s model letter says that individual Catholics can interpret church teachings to conclude that it is wrong for them to accept any medical product related to abortion.
The Reverend Tad Pacholczyk, an ethicist and director of education at the center, noted that the Vatican clarifies that vaccines “must be voluntary.”
The church “strongly encourages the safeguarding of conscience rights,” he said in a statement, criticizing a “one size fits all” approach to employer mandates.
“Such decisions rightly belong in the hands of the individual patient, who can assess their situation on the ground more meaningfully than any federal agency, politician or employer,” he said. “Conscientious exemptions to vaccination mandates must be widely available not only to Catholics but to all individuals.”
The claim for religious exemptions frustrates some who suspect there are non-religious motivations.
“There is no typically Catholic objection to receiving any of the available COVID-19 vaccines,” said Michael Deem, assistant professor of bioethics and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said the Vatican had provided detailed moral advice on the acceptability of vaccines – considering factors such as the lack of alternative vaccines and the benefits of containing a deadly pandemic.
The relatively low vaccination rate among white evangelicals frustrates Curtis Chang, a theologian whose organization Redeeming Babel started a Christians and the Vaccine project with evangelical and healthcare groups, promoting COVID-19 vaccines on biblical principles.
Seeking religious exemptions for many “is a misuse of religion to justify political or cultural positions, and that is very dangerous,” Chang said. “There is no real religious reason to seek exemption, especially from employer mandates.”
He knows pastors in favor of vaccines but who are pressured by the faithful to give them letters justifying their refusal of vaccines on religious grounds. “I encourage pastors not to give in to this.”
Ruling on such exemptions is “ultimately a danger to the long-term cause of religious freedom,” he said, because employers and courts can overlook the sincerity of employees when faced with real situations where their faith must be taken into account.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.