Global Faith Leaders Push Back Against Religious Exemptions for Covid Vaccine

Thousands of Americans have applied for religious exemptions to avoid the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but they are largely doing so without the support of major denominations or notable religious leaders.

Pope Francis has backed vaccinations as “the most rational answer to the epidemic” from the Vatican. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has said unequivocally that religious exemptions would not be granted to its members. Similar thoughts were expressed by Robert Jeffress, the conservative pastor of a Dallas Baptist megachurch.

“We have declined to give exemptions to the minority of persons who have asked them because there is no legitimate biblical justification against vaccinations,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. “People may have significant medical or political objections to government-mandated immunizations, but that does not raise such concerns to religious beliefs that should be addressed.”

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbour, an Orthodox synagogue in Surfside, Florida, reminds his congregation that vaccination is a personal choice.

“However, I always advise them to get medical advice from a qualified practitioner,” he continued. “In a critical case, they should acquire two medical views that are in agreement.”

Even though Pope Francis has stated his support for vaccines, there remain differences among the Catholic Church in the United States. While some bishops have prohibited their priests from supporting persons seeking exemptions, others have offered template letters for people claiming conscientious objections to vaccinations based on Catholic beliefs.

The Rev. Bob Stec of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, wrote via email, “We have gotten several requests and have helped quite a few process their letter/request.”

“Vaccination is not a general necessity,” one of Stec’s letters states, “and a person must obey the decision of his or her own informed and confident God-given conscience.” “If a Catholic makes an educated and certain conscience decision not to accept a vaccination, the Catholic Church recognizes that the person… has the freedom to refuse the vaccine.”

The Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey, on the other hand, has encouraged its priests not to promote religious exemptions for its parishioners.

The Rev. Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace & St. Joseph Parish in Hoboken, stated, “I’ve been asked maybe six times and have rejected.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now exploring the issue of religious exemptions, according to Candice Buchbinder, a spokesman for the organization. She pointed out that prior ELCA statements were opposed to wide religious exclusions and saw medicine as a “gift of God for the common benefit.”

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council made its position known even before the epidemic, issuing a resolution in June 2019 pushing for tougher government vaccine regulations.

The resolution said, “The Executive Council accepts no claim of theological or religious exemption from vaccination for our members.”

According to Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, someone from a faith that supports vaccinations can nonetheless request an exemption based on personal conscience.

“I have prayed about this, and I have come to the conclusion that God does not want me to take this vaccination,” Ledewitz advised a client seeking a religious exemption.

Employers have taken significantly disparate responses to similar arguments, with some giving several exemptions and others, such as the United States military services, allowing relatively few.

Many Christians have claimed the COVID-19 vaccinations’ tangential link to prior abortions as a grounds for requesting religious exemptions. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were tested using cell lines derived from babies that were aborted decades ago, while viruses used to make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were generated using cell lines derived from fetuses that were terminated decades ago. There are no fetal cells in any of these vaccinations.

Receiving these COVID-19 vaccinations is ethically permissible, according to the Vatican. While it opposes abortion-related research, it claims that vaccination recipients are not responsible for their participation since they are so far removed from the abortions involved.

While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has mirrored Vatican doctrine, a number of bishops have aided those seeking religious exemptions. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank with renowned bishops on its board of directors, has done the same.

Individual Catholics may interpret church teachings to infer that accepting any medical product linked to abortion is sinful, according to the center’s draft letter.

The Vatican emphasizes that vaccines “must be optional,” according to the Rev. Tad Pacholczyk, ethicist and director of education at the institution.

He stated in a statement that the church “strongly advocates the preservation of conscience rights,” rejecting a “one size fits all” approach to employment demands.

“Such decisions belong in the hands of the individual patient,” he stated, “who can appraise his or her on-the-ground condition more meaningfully than any government agency, politician, or employer.” “Vaccine mandate conscience exemptions should be widely offered, not only to Catholics, but to everyone.”

Some people are frustrated by religious exemption claims because they believe there are non-religious motives behind them.

“There are no distinctly Catholic objections to obtaining any of the existing COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Michael Deem, an associate professor of bioethics and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

He claims that the Vatican has offered thorough moral counsel on the vaccinations’ acceptability, taking into account factors such as the absence of alternative vaccines and the advantages of containing a devastating pandemic.

Curtis Chang, a theologian whose Redeeming Babel organization created a Christians and the Vaccine initiative with evangelical and health-care groups, advocating the COVID-19 vaccinations on biblical grounds, is frustrated by the low vaccination rate among white evangelicals.

Many people are looking for religious exemptions. “It’s a terrible appropriation of religion to legitimize political or cultural attitudes,” Chang added. “There is no legitimate religious rationale to seek an exemption, particularly from employment demands,” says the author.

Pastors who are pro-vaccine are being pressed by their congregations to write statements explaining their vaccination rejection on religious grounds. “I’m advising preachers not to succumb to that.”

The push for such exemptions is “a risk to the long-term cause of religious liberty,” he added, because employers and courts may doubt employees’ sincerity when they are confronted with true situations in which their beliefs must be accommodated.

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