Troops find religious exemption for vaccines inaccessible

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WASHINGTON – More than 12,000 military service members refusing the COVID-19 vaccine are asking for religious exemptions, and so far they have had no success.

This complete lack of approvals is creating new tensions within the army, even though the vast majority of the armed forces have been vaccinated.

The services, which are urgently trying to control the coronavirus pandemic by vaccinating troops, are now besieged with requests for exemptions that they are unlikely to approve. Meanwhile, troops citing religious reasons for avoiding the fire are puzzled as exemptions are theoretically available, but seem unobtainable.

Chaplains are caught between the two, balancing the desire to offer compassionate care and guidance to staff and the need to explain a complicated process that may well turn out to be futile. They must also assess the demands of those who may use religion as an excuse to avoid a vaccine which, although credited with preventing unnecessary deaths, has become politically charged.

“So many of them come thinking I’m making the decision, and if they make that case, it’s a done deal,” said Major A’Shellarien Lang, an army chaplain for the Guard. national. “I’m not making the decision. And so when they find out, it’s a game-changer in the sense that they know the process has to continue. “

According to the services, at least 30,000 soldiers have not yet been vaccinated, but several thousand of them have obtained temporary or definitive medical or administrative exemptions. Of the remainder – who are probably 20,000 or more – thousands pushed their way through the exemption process, as for religious reasons, or categorically refused. This represents about 1.5% of the approximately 1.3 million soldiers in active service.

Obtaining a religious exemption is rooted in a pre-pandemic process and has been used for decisions such as whether serving troops can wear headgear or beards for religious reasons.

But for the troops and chaplains, it was a bit overwhelming.

“It was just a lot of interviews, a lot of memos,” Lang said. “I find my coworkers stressed out just because of the logistics of writing the memo and making sure they go through the process. It’s like rapid fire.

Air Force officials initially said religious exemption requests would be processed within 30 days. But they received more than 4,700 requests – far more than other military services, and the logistics of the long review process made it difficult to meet this deadline. The Navy has received about 2,700 requests for religious exemptions, the Marine Corps has 3,100, and the Army has about 1,700. Some that were rejected were appealed, but little data is available. on this subject.

“We weren’t expecting a wave of requests,” said Air Force Col. Paul Sutter, chief religious affairs chaplain at Space Force, which is part of the Air Force.

An Air Force reservist who has requested a religious exemption said she was not aware of any approvals so far, and she is not optimistic. The reservist, who requested that her name not be released for confidentiality reasons, said her chaplain was very straightforward, laying out the process and noting the lack of approvals.

Yet, she said, she believes “God has a plan for my life.”

Sutter and Col. Larry Bazer, deputy director of the National Guard Joint Chaplains Office, said they tell their chaplains to be impartial when speaking with the military and to go through the process.

“Meet the member where he is. Let them express who they are, how they believe and how they live this faith, ”said Sutter, he advises chaplains. “We’re just looking for their articulation of their deeply held beliefs. You are looking for consistency in the way they adhere to these beliefs.

Lang, who has conducted more than 50 interviews, said a key question she asks is what members of the service plan to do if their application is denied – a possibility some don’t expect.

She said some troops believe God does not want them to be vaccinated and are torn by what they see as a contradiction if God does not somehow guarantee that they get the exemption. .

“If in their hearts and minds they say it’s God’s will for my life, and the answer is no, it’s going to break that faith because there is no balance. There is no place for God to say no, ”she said. “When I create a space to say and if God says no, it opens up a whole new level of conversation about faith. “

The Air Force reservist who spoke on condition of anonymity said she had been raised as a Christian and was ready to retire if her request was not granted, even if it would mean giving up her benefits for the GI Bill tuition that she would get if she stayed a year longer. or more.

“I’m going to have to give this up,” said the mother of three, including a newborn. Giving up the schooling allowances, which she could transfer to her children, is worth it, she said. “I have no doubt that God will provide for me.”

The reservist, whose husband is in the military and is vaccinated, was pregnant when the vaccine came out, and she was concerned about a possible reaction. Health officials have claimed it is safe for pregnant women, but in some cases the military has granted temporary exemptions to women. The reservist said her opposition was rooted in her faith, especially in fears that some vaccines had been tested on fetal cell lines developed over decades. The vaccines do not contain fetal material.

The Vatican has ruled “morally acceptable” for Catholics to be vaccinated and other Christian denominations have done the same. But some religious leaders have offered sample exemption letters and expressed support for vaccine avoidance.

The services, in many cases, provided chaplains with interview questions such as whether the service member’s “pattern of conduct” is consistent, whether the member regularly conforms to religious practices, and whether the member participates in activities. “Associated with belief”.

The chaplains also take into account that the military have already received religious accommodations.

“I don’t really dig how long they’ve been in church and stuff like that because it’s really about their current reality of what they really believe,” Lang said. “And at that point – let’s assume it’s a political decision, but they wrap it in religiosity – that’s still what they believe at that point.”

The chaplains said the talks had the secondary benefit of sensitizing the troops to the availability of religious personnel and that the meetings triggered longer conversations on other issues.

“It really has been a bridge to a bigger ministry,” Lang said.

Chaplains also reach out for support. The past two years have been difficult for them as they have worked with troops facing a wide range of struggles – losses from COVID-19, pressures at work, racial unrest and protests, and deployments.

“It’s really been a major stress on our chaplain body – just being there as a chaplain,” said Bazer, a rabbi. “Overall the people are good, but the people are tired. I think our faith gives us that extra strength to keep going – it’s that spiritual adrenaline rush.

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