Flagging vaccination rates over the summer of 2021 combined with a sudden surge of the COVID-19 delta variant in recent weeks have prompted many businesses and organizations, and even some state and federal government entities, to implement vaccination requirements for employees. These requirements dictate that all employees, whatever their personal reservations might be, must be vaccinated by a specified date or else face repercussions ranging from required masking, testing, and isolation to different assignments to formal termination. (It should be noted that some versions of these requirements do allow for individuals to forgo the vaccine in exchange for submitting to routine COVID-19 testing.)
As an ethicist and attorney practicing religious liberty law, we have engaged in dozens of conversations over the past few weeks regarding vaccination mandates, as well as religious exemptions. Many Christians are considering the ethics and wisdom of these situations for the first time, fielding advice and anecdotes from a variety of sources. We would like to bring to the reader’s attention our perspective and experience on these important issues as they navigate these difficult questions.
Unvaccinated employees may have any number of personal responses to a policy of vaccine mandates. They may feel the policy unnecessarily overreaching or discriminatory, or perhaps presumptuous and hasty. Some may feel concern or anger at being told how they must handle important and personal medical decisions. Reasons for refusal are wide-ranging, with some based on credible concerns and others being much more subjective.
Currently in the United States, it is legally permissible for employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations so long as there are medical and religious accommodations available in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of federally protected classes, including religion, and provides that applicable employers must provide a religious accommodation to an employee who holds a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance” against a workplace requirement. Employers must grant the religious accommodation request so long as doing so does not pose an “undue burden” to the employer, either economic or non-economic.
If faced with such a mandate, some Christians will likely consider objecting to vaccination requirements on religious grounds. In this type of situation, they would claim the requirements violate their religious beliefs and seek formal religious exemptions. Such a claim might be motivated by the belief that their constitutionally protected rights are being infringed upon and that their religious sentiments are sufficient grounds for refusal.
Identifying religious grounds
In our experience, the reasons appealed to by some evangelicals for refusing vaccinations are not, strictly speaking, religious, but personal, philosophical, or political. This includes objections that invoke religious beliefs in general terms, but upon further scrutiny, appeal to other factors. Some may, for example, express concerns about infertility, or the lack of longitudinal studies, or that their employer has simply violated their rights. But none of these reasons are overtly related with the individual’s religious beliefs.
There are undoubtedly people of faith with relevant moral and, or, theological concerns that could merit religious exemption. This is why, when appealing to religious liberty as the basis for an exemption, Christians should proceed carefully. Seeking a religious exemption should very clearly rest on apparent and applicable religious beliefs.
Thus, a strong religious exemption would be based on recognized scriptural precept or a particular church or tradition’s confession or teaching. In its most robust form, such an exemption might rely on a provision within a church’s confessional statement explicitly forbidding vaccines or other medical interventions. The Amish or Jehovah’s Witness are examples. No such direct prohibition exists within wider Christian theology, but these religious groups are able to appeal to a unique teaching wholly adopted by their specific faith tradition.
A relevant ethical question, drawn from scriptural teaching of the value of our bodies and treating them rightly, is whether vaccines harm the body. At present, there is little to no evidence that they do. Instead, data suggests that refusing vaccination risks severe illness and possibly death. At present, the unvaccinated are “29 times more likely to be hospitalized.” Furthermore, refusing vaccination could lead to others experiencing bodily harm as the unvaccinated are at increased risk of transmitting the virus to others.
It is also important to remember that illegitimate appeals to religious liberty are perhaps the greatest threat to legal protections of religious liberty. Appealing to a religious accommodation that is not sincerely held and uniformly applied dilutes legal options to appeal to when religious liberty is genuinely threatened in the future. Whatever reasons a person may have for refusing vaccination, it is important to resist the temptation to endow those reasons with religious significance merely as a strategy for securing exemption from an employer mandate. Not every directive during a public health crisis represents a curtailment of religious liberty. As stated, the request for a religious exemption should rest on the foundation of a sincere and applicable religious belief.
Religious liberty is precious and should be protected. And while each person is free to live according to their sincerely held beliefs, Christians, in particular, should consider the call of Christ when weighing our decisions. We are not our own because we belong to the crucified and resurrected Lord. We don’t possess ourselves but are ourselves possessed by him (1 Cor 6:20). In the context of vaccinations, this certainly includes seeking counsel, acknowledging the mounting evidence to the safety of vaccines, and contemplating the risks in refusing them, not only to oneself but also to one’s neighbor.
Views reflected in this article may not reflect those of their current or previous employers.