Last week, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction at the request of seventeen New York medical health professionals who object to the COVID-19 vaccines on religious grounds, and who would have been prevented from working under the new governor’s revised vaccine mandate. On the other side of the country, more than 2,600 employees with the Los Angeles Police Department have reportedly sought religious exemptions for their city-mandated vaccinations. Golden State Warriors player Andrew Wiggins asked the NBA for religious exemption from vaccination but was rebuffed; he would not have been allowed to play home games in San Francisco if he had not relented and been vaccinated earlier this month.
As vaccination mandates become the norm in several sectors—government, universities, some private businesses—debates over religious exemptions are popping up. Public schools, which have recently been the locus of heated debates over the teaching of the 1619 Project, curricula with even a whiff of critical race theory, and classroom mask mandates, will likely soon become a site of fights about mandatory vaccination too, as vaccines for children under 12 become available. All fifty states currently impose immunization mandates for students; all but six states already permit religious exemptions to the standard immunizations; it is certain that some parents will seek religious exemptions if COVID vaccines become mandatory in schools.
Before the issue goes much further, it is worth taking a moment to examine some of the complications.
Disputes over and challenges to religious exemptions are nothing new—in fact, they can be traced back to the nation’s founding, when Quakers refused to bear arms for and give loyalty to their new state governments. In recent years, the issue of religious exemptions from laws prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of sexuality has been a continual source of legal drama, most memorably in the case of Kim Davis, the former county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, who refused to issue marriage licenses. The Affordable Care Act also faced religious-exemption challenges in relation to abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and sterilization. While Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants have typically received the most media attention for their protests, plenty of other groups have sought legal accommodations on any number of issues in the last few years, such as the Satanic Temple demanding a religious exemption from Texas’s new abortion restrictions. The demands from some people to be exempt from taking a COVID-19 vaccine on the basis of their religious beliefs should not surprise us; it would be far more surprising if people weren’t making such claims.
The legal basis of today’s religious exemptions is found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Questions about what counts as a religion for legal purposes are handled by lawyers and judges, not religion scholars or theologians. Part of the difficulty in seeking a religious exemption goes to questions of sincerity, reasonability, hardship, and bodily autonomy. These issues can spark all sorts of theological questions that employers and judges might find themselves unsure how to handle, such as by what metric someone’s “sincerely held” belief can be measured? What about what religious leaders say? Is there a scriptural proof-text of some kind that can be referenced? This is but the tip of the of very complicated iceberg.
On the subject of religious exemptions, Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN correctly stated that “there are precious few religions that actually say you cannot [get vaccinated].” Vanderbilt University’s Medical Center offers a brief overview of where several faith traditions have stood on vaccines in history and doctrine. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many faith leaders have played a prominent role in combating COVID-19, easing the fears of their communities, and encouraging people to get vaccinated. According to Pew, most religious Americans trust their leaders’ guidance when it comes to matters related to COVID, including vaccines. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Dalai Lama are among the religious leaders who have publicly received a shot as a witness to the vaccines’ safety and as a signal of their ethicality.
Several religious leaders have also issued statements explicitly addressing whether and in what circumstances a religious exemption should be considered legitimate.
Last week, for example, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services said in a statement that “no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.” The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine was produced and manufactured using cell lines derived decades ago from aborted fetal tissue; in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, such fetal cell lines were used only in the testing stage. For some Catholics, the development and production of the vaccines is entangled with the sin of abortion in a way that makes the vaccines morally unacceptable, hence the request for religious exemption. In response to these apprehensions, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarified back in January that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are morally preferable to the J&J: “In these two cases the use is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion.” The Vatican has also decreed that in situations where “ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available . . . it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”
Muslims also sought out the advice of their leaders, inquiring if the vaccines were halal. Though American Islam has no institutionalized centralized authority figure or ruling body, the Islamic Medical Association of North America has determined that the “Pfizer, Moderna, J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines are Halal,” as has the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America. The Fiqh Council of North America echoed these sentiments, additionally summoning American Muslims to “play their role in debunking baseless rumors and myths about the vaccine.”
Some religious groups and institutions have taken a hard line against their members seeking vaccination exemptions. For example, Archbishop Elpidophoros, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and president of the Holy Eparchial Synod, informed congregant that no exemption for vaccination will be offered by the Church. Additionally, the Holy Eparchial Synod stated that letters of exemption issued by Greek Orthodox priests “have no validity” and forbade its clergy from writing such letters. Likewise, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church has stated that it “recognizes no claim of theological or religious exemption from vaccination for our members.” Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, said he and his staff “are neither offering nor encouraging members to seek religious exemptions from the vaccine mandates.” A spokesperson for the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informed Deseret News that church leaders will not be issuing religious exemptions for the COVID-19. A more direct letter was also circulated to all LDS bishops and stake presidents within California by the Area Presidency that “No church official can sign any kind of document supporting the notion that church doctrine/teaching is opposed to vaccination or that the church is opposed to vaccination mandates.” Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen Priest and Director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, has stated “While we must have a flexible and compassionate mind to allow exemptions for those for whom a vaccine is medically inadvisable, we can certainly support mandating the currently best-known method to create a healthier community.”
Notwithstanding those statements, within the American legal system, religious exemptions are granted on an individual basis. So if, for example, an American Catholic can make a strong enough case that he or she should be granted a religious exemption from getting a COVID vaccine because of a “sincerely held” religious belief, it does not matter what the Pope says.
Although some of the statements from religious leaders are very clear and explicit, millions of Americans of various faiths lack comparable guidance. And so as COVID vaccine mandates come to be enforced, it is likely that many claims of religious exemption will be hotly debated and litigated, in the courts and in the pews and beyond. Some commentators will no doubt describe these religious exemptions as a mockery of religion, or as proof that religious people at their core are just unscientific fools. Because we cannot expect comprehensive understanding of or appreciation for one another’s religious beliefs and practices, religious people and their leaders will need to offer clarity. Among the faithful making ill-thought-out, suspicious, or even dubious claims for religious exemptions, opportunities for religious education might present themselves. As we balance the competing goods of protecting public health and the free exercise of religion, we can at least work to report on and debate these intense and complicated subjects with patience, civility, and mutual respect.