Thistlethwaite: Are religious exemptions from vaccination politics or belief?
No major religion has come out against COVID-19 vaccination as against their beliefs.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists have issued statements saying that their religion does not prohibit members from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, there are only five, all Christian sects, that have objected to the vaccines: the Dutch Reformed Church, Church of the First Born, Faith Assembly and Endtime Ministries.
Yet, “religious exemptions” are now being widely sought as a way to avoid vaccination mandates. In Washington, D.C., about 1,500 city health care workers are seeking exemptions for religious reasons. Over 2,000 Los Angeles Police Department workers have filed a lawsuit objecting to mandated vaccination on religious or medical grounds.
“Sincerely held religious beliefs” are protected in law, but the profession of belief can be undermined in credibility if the behavior of the one professing the religious beliefs exhibits behavior that is “markedly inconsistent with the professed belief” or if an accommodation is being sought for “secular reasons,” i.e. political.
Today there is a strong drive to use religion and religious freedom as a way to subvert civil rights laws, a subject I and others tackled in a Vail Symposium in a debate on Aug. 13, 2019. I do not believe religious conviction gives you the right to deny rights to other people.
Your “religious conviction,” moreover, cannot just be what is under your own hat at any one time, and it cannot be just a code for “how I can advance my political convictions.”
Of course, it can be difficult for employers to separate out a “sincerely held religious belief” from a political conviction. Many employees say they are claiming religious exemptions because they believe that fetal cells were used in research, testing or production. But, the consistency of this conviction can be tested in a very practical way.
The vaccines themselves do not contain any fetal cells. Fetal cell lines developed years ago have been used in the research and development of the vaccines, but the vaccines themselves contain no fetal cells. The Vatican has said that it’s “morally acceptable” to receive a vaccination for COVID-19, even if the vaccine’s research or production involved using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, given the “grave danger” of the pandemic.
Employers can reasonably look for consistency to see if it is religious belief and not politics that is driving the request for the exemption. In Conway, Ark., Matt Troup, CEO of Conway Regional Health System, received requests for religious exemptions based on the employees’ beliefs that vaccines that used fetal cells in research, testing or production should not be put in their bodies.
“Before granting the religious exemptions, Troup sent the employees a list of 28 commonly used medicines that also used fetal cells in their research, testing or development — a list that includes Tylenol, Motrin, Tums, Ex-Lax and other medicine cabinet staples. He asked employees to attest to not be using any of those medicines.”
This current drive to use “religious exemption” as a way to avoid vaccine mandates can thus be exposed as driven more by political than religious conviction if the person requesting the exemption has not been consistent in avoiding all medications that derive from these cell lines.
I have been a pastor and a professor of religion all my adult life, and there is literally no way to hold people accountable for the sincerity of their religious beliefs in an abstract way. Human spiritual life is very complex.
Someone suddenly “getting religion” in order to avoid a vaccine mandate, however, would make me question how sincere those beliefs are.
Consistency of practice, especially in regard to using other medications, can be an objective guide and that’s what employers need.
For me as a person of faith, however, the guiding religious principle in regard to COVID vaccination is “love of neighbor” (Mark 12:31).
We do not get vaccinated just for ourselves, but for the sake of the neighbor whom we could also infect. That is God’s love in action.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.