Coronavirus: Many faith leaders are wary of religious exemptions

Thousands of Americans have sought religious exemptions to circumvent COVID-19 vaccine regulations, but generally they are doing so without the encouragement of major sects and religious leaders. popular.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis defended vaccines as “the most sensible solution to the pandemic.” The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has categorically stated that its followers will not receive religious exemption. Robert Jeffress, a conservative pastor of a Baptist city in Dallas, expressed a similar view.

“Since there are no credible biblical arguments against vaccines, we have declined to provide waivers to the small number of people who have requested them,” Jeffress told The Associated Press by email. “People may have strong medical or political objections to government-mandated vaccines, but just because those objections are felt strongly does not elevate them to a worthy religious belief.” accept.”

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbor, an Orthodox synagogue in Surfside, Florida, said he told congregation members that vaccinations should be a matter of free choice.

“But I always advise them to get a medical opinion from a competent professional,” he added. “In a serious matter, they should get two medically concurred opinions.”

Within the Catholic Church in the United States, there are divisions – although Pope Francis has been very clear in his support of vaccination. While some bishops have banned their priests from assisting in seeking an exemption, other bishops and priests have provided sample letters to righteous claimants opposing vaccines on public grounds. teacher.

“We have received many requests and have helped some people to process their mail/requests,” said Father Bob Stec of St. Ambrose of Brunswick, Ohio, said by email.

One of the letters provided by Stec said: “Vaccination is not a universal obligation and one must submit to a judgment of conscience that is informed and certainly God-given.” “If a Catholic comes to a judgment informed and certain in conscience that he or she should not receive the vaccine, the Catholic Church acknowledges that the person … has the right to refuse the vaccine. “

It is different in New Jersey’s Archdiocese of Newark, which has advised its priests not to support religious exemption for their parishioners.

“I was asked about six times and refused,” said Father Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace & Saint Joseph Parish in Hoboken.

Candice Buchbinder, a spokeswoman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the US, said the denomination is currently working on the issue of religious exemptions. She noted that previous ELCA documents oppose widespread religious exemption and see medicine as “a gift from God for the benefit of the community.”

Even before the pandemic, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council had made its position clear – passing a resolution in June 2019 calling for stronger government immunization mandates. .

“The Executive Council does not recognize requests for theological or religious immunity of our members,” the resolution said.

However, someone from a cult that promotes vaccination can still apply for an exemption based on personal conscience, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Ledewitz said he would advise a client who wants religious exemption to simply say, “I’ve been praying about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that God doesn’t want me to get this vaccine.”

Recruiters have adopted a variety of approaches to such an argument – some grant plenty of immunity while others, including US military service, allow only very few.

While the reasons for applying for a religious exemption vary, many Christians have cited a remote link of the COVID-19 vaccine to abortions in the past. Lab-grown cell lines derived from fetuses aborted decades ago are used to test Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and culture the viruses used to make vaccines. Johnson & Johnson. None of these vaccines contain fetal cells.

The Vatican has stated that it is ethically acceptable to receive this COVID-19 vaccine. While it opposes abortion-related research, it says any recipient of the vaccine should not be found guilty of engaging in it, given how far away they are from the abortions involved.

While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has echoed Vatican teaching, some bishops have supported those seeking religious exemption. So does the National Center for Catholic Bioethics, an advisory organization with prominent bishops on its board.

The center’s sample letter states that individual Catholics can interpret the church’s teachings to conclude that they accept any abortion-related medical product as false.

Bishop Tad Pacholczyk, the center’s ethicist and educational director, noted that the Vatican mandates that vaccines “must be voluntary.”

The church “strongly promotes the defense of the right to conscience,” he said in a statement, criticizing the “one size fits all” approach to employer duties. .

“Such decisions are up to individual patients, who can assess their actual situation more meaningfully than any federal agency, politician or employer,” he said. speak. “The conscientious objection to vaccination duties should be freely applied not only to Catholics but to all individuals.”

The religious disclaimer disappointed some who suspected non-religious motives.

“There is no clear Catholic objection to receiving any available COVID-19 vaccine,” said Michael Deem, assistant professor of bioethics and genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

He said the Vatican has provided detailed ethical guidance on the acceptability of vaccines – considering things like the lack of an alternative vaccine and the benefits of eradicating a deadly pandemic.

Relatively low vaccination rates among white Protestants led Curtis Chang, a theologian whose organization Redeeming Babel launched a Christian group and the Vaccine project with mission and care groups health, promoting a COVID-19 vaccine according to biblical principles.

Seeking religious exemption for many people “is an infringement on religion to justify a political or cultural stance, and that’s very dangerous,” Chang said. “There’s no real religious reason to seek exemptions, especially from employer duties.”

He knows of pastors who advocate for vaccines but are pressured by congregations to give them letters justifying their rejection of vaccines for religious reasons. “I’m encouraging pastors not to give in to that.”

Such an exemption move is “dangerous to the long-term cause of religious freedom,” he said, because employers and courts could downplay employees’ sincerity. when they are faced with real situations where their faith needs to be answered.


The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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