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Why Christians should navigate questions of vaccine mandates and religious exemptions with wisdom

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August 26, 2021

Between the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in winter 2019 and the subsequent worldwide pandemic that has killed over 4.4 million, the astounding speed at which treatments and vaccines for this deadly virus have been developed is nothing short of miraculous. This speed is due in large part to the concerted and concentrated efforts by governments, medical providers, researchers, local communities, and pharmaceutical companies around the world. In the United States, Operation Warp Speed and other major government interventions have propelled the rapid, yet safe development of these life-saving vaccines as well as the incredible free and open distribution to all those eligible.

While some have raised specific concerns about the safety, timeline, or even the processes used in their creation, the evidence is clear that these vaccines are safe and effective. This was seen most recently in the announcement from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States which gave the first full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Many of the pressing concerns and ethical quandaries have been addressed by medical professionals, as well as Christian ethicists, who support their use and wide distribution throughout society.

With COVID cases still on the rise across the nation due to the delta variant, low vaccination rates in many parts of the country, and the widespread free access to these medical marvels, many businesses and organizations — both in the private and public sector — are beginning to plan for or institute vaccine requirements in order to combat the severity of these outbreaks. Vaccine requirements have recently been announced for those in crucial fields such as healthcare, the military, schools, and other large organizations in recognition of the high-risk situations in which those in these fields operate and for the safety of all involved, including their families and individuals medically unable to get a vaccine. The decision to require vaccinations is serious and consequential — especially for those vaccines that have not received full FDA approval and are being used on emergency authorization.

Vaccines and negative tests

While some communities, businesses, and organizations have decided to require either some proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for access to specific services or amenities, a widespread federal mandate is still unlikely to be announced at this point. As businesses and organizations begin to think through requirements for vaccines, often in combination with negative diagnostic tests, it is important to remember how politically charged this entire situation has become. From rampant COVID-19 disinformation to the political scoreboard often being used to evaluate these public health decisions, any type of mandate will likely receive considerable pushback from some employees — whether spawning from true medical or religious concerns, or fears and misunderstandings based on misinformation. 

As individuals inquire about exemptions, it would be wise for businesses and organizations to encourage these members of their team to meet with their doctors and direct them to outlets with credible information on the life-saving nature of these vaccines. This is especially important as they make personal healthcare decisions that not only affect themselves but those they will interact with in public. Providing space for open dialogue, addressing concerns, and providing certain accommodations based on true medical or religious objections may also help to temper some of the politicization of these debates as we seek to prioritize the health and safety of our communities.

The gravity of religious exemptions

As the likelihood of vaccine requirements for certain aspects of society become more of a reality, many pastors and church leaders will also be involved in these decisions because people may seek religious accommodation in order to not take the vaccine. Certain faith groups and denominations have claimed religious exemptions based on sincere religious convictions for various medical interventions; have consistently argued over time against the use of vaccines; or may have certain moral objections to the COVID vaccines in particular. Yet, pastors and ministry leaders must be aware that some people may seek a religious exemption to these mandates not out of any direct or meaningful religious objection or issue of faith but out of a desire to disregard the mandates that have been common throughout our nation’s history and frequently upheld by the courts.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization that has long advocated for religious freedom throughout our society, “(US) Courts have ruled for over a century that the government may require mandatory vaccines in certain circumstances. Religious objectors may be entitled to accommodations in some circumstances.” ADF also encourages anyone seeking these types of religious accommodations or exemptions from vaccine mandates to seek to determine whether one’s objections actually rise to the level of a religious objection, not simply a medical, social, or political objection. ADF states that “many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.” Defined claims to religious objection must be taken seriously, but claiming a religious objection is no guarantee that public or private entities will recognize it.

Pastors and ministry leaders need to take caution in counseling or even endorsing these types of exemptions because of the gravity of the moral and conscience-based issues involved. Not only can it be disingenuous to claim a religious exemption when one is not present, but spurious claims can also damage the integrity of other religious freedom assertions in the future and what level of trust religious organizations still have in society. 

Many denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, have long supported vaccines, advocated for their use, and even assisted in distribution. In recent decades, the International Mission Board has become one of the largest vaccine-givers — beginning with the ground-breaking polio vaccines in the 1950s — throughout the eastern United States. This is due to the necessity of vaccines in order to send missionaries across the world to share the hope of Christ to the nations.

Therefore, pastors and ministry leaders should proceed with caution if asked to give counsel or endorse a religious exemption claim to vaccine mandates. While this will come down to the discretion and wisdom of specific leaders, it is paramount that pastors understand the gravity of their counsel and the consistency of opposition. While ADF notes that it is “inappropriate for an employer to demand that an employee support their religious accommodation request with statements from the employee’s church or clergy” according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, pastor and ministry leaders will likely be asked in certain cases to defend or support a religious exemption based on social, political, or medical concerns. This can put the church and its leaders in difficult circumstances, especially in terms of ethical and integrity issues.

Standing for religious freedom and wisdom

The situation we find ourselves in today with COVID-19 is dire as many of our hospitals hit maximum capacity and medical professionals begin to suffer extreme exhaustion, putting a massive strain on the local healthcare infrastructure. Thousands upon thousands have lost their lives and many more lost their livelihoods due to the measures enacted to contain the spread of this unrelenting virus. And by God’s grace, we now have solutions in order to mitigate the widespread impact of this pandemic.

Pastors and ministry leaders have already been under enormous stress due to ministry in these chaotic times. The prospect of sorting through yet another pandemic-related dilemma is also daunting. Still, it is important to remember that approaching questions about religious liberty claims is something of deep consequence. We must not allow or give support to mere personal or political preferences masquerading as religious liberty claims. Indeed, doing so is not only morally disingenuous but also can do long-term damage to the credibility of pastors, churches, and Christian institutions in our communities. At the same time, pastors should graciously and patiently consult with those seeking such exemptions or accommodations in order to determine whether the request is predicated on sincere religious grounds. 

Religious liberty is fundamental to the Christian faith and American life. It is a right that our government is designed to recognize and uphold, but also a right that must be guarded and respected given other deeply concerning religious freedom violations we have experienced over the years. As we continue to address questions about vaccines and mandates, Christians should strive to base our decisions not on politics or hearsay but on sound biblical reasoning and the best information available.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More