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As vaccine mandates multiply, so do requests for religious exemptions

As vaccine mandates multiply, so do requests for religious exemptions

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A couple dozen people asked the Buffalo Diocese for letters supporting a religious exemption from a Covid-19 vaccination.

The University at Buffalo and other area colleges and universities granted several hundred exemptions from their mandatory vaccine policy for students, mostly for faith reasons.

A national religious liberty organization is threatening to sue New York State over a vaccine mandate for health care workers that doesn’t include a religious exemption.

Religious exemptions are becoming another major flashpoint in the Covid-19 vaccination debate. Even though the world's major religions generally support the use of vaccines to control infectious disease, some religious liberty advocates maintain that vaccine mandates must accommodate people who refuse because of deeply held religious beliefs. Others say the religious exemption threatens public health efforts by giving people who disagree with vaccine mandates for political reasons an easy loophole.

Bishop Michael W. Fisher last week wrote a letter to area parishioners echoing Pope Francis’ earlier advocacy for Catholics around the world to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

“It is an act of charity and a sign of care for not only each of us individually, but for the whole community,” Fisher said in his letter.

Fisher also said priests won’t be providing letters that affirm a religious exemption.

Fisher is among many religious leaders across the country urging people of faith to get vaccinated, including high-profile evangelical Christians such as Franklin Graham and Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Read the full story from News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski

The Chapel at CrossPoint in Amherst, one of the area’s largest evangelical congregations, declined to take a position in the vaccination debate.

“We have neither a direct instruction nor direct prohibition regarding vaccinations in the scripture,” the church said in a statement to The News. “We have people in our church that will feel conscience bound to receive the vaccination as an act of faith in Jesus and motivated by the Christian impulse to think of others before themselves. We affirm that.”

“As well, we have people in our church that will feel conscience bound to not receive the vaccinations as an act of faith in Jesus. We also affirm their freedom to do so,” the statement continued.

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants have the highest rate of vaccine refusal in the country at 24%, according to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute. The next highest refusal rate was among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 19%. Nine percent of white Catholics and 6% of Hispanic Catholics surveyed said they refused to get the vaccine in the poll released in June.

Religious liberty objections have intensified as the number of vaccine mandates around the country grows. On Thursday, President Biden announced executive orders requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated, along with mandates for businesses of more than 100 employees and health facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to require vaccinated workforces.

Six anonymous health care workers sued the state of Maine in August over its requirement that they be vaccinated by Oct. 1, with no religious exemptions allowed.

Roger Gannam of Liberty Counsel, a religious liberty legal organization based in Orlando that’s representing the workers, called Maine’s mandate “an egregious violation of federal law.”

The organization has been flooded with requests for legal help from people opposed to getting vaccinated because of the vaccines’ connections to aborted fetal cell lines, said Gannam, assistant vice president of legal affairs.

That connection for some Christians “is a bridge too far,” he said.

Others object on the basis that a vaccine with unknown long-term effects violates a Biblical tenet to avoid polluting the body because it is a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

New York State in August imposed a similar vaccine requirement for health care workers, and Liberty Counsel is considering a lawsuit here, as well, said Gannam.

A Supreme Court decision in 1905, in an age when smallpox ravaged communities, established a state’s right to require vaccinations. But the nation’s highest court has yet to rule on whether religious exemptions must be recognized.

Gannam said Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, makes it clear that an employee can request an accommodation or exemption because of religious beliefs.

“The standard is a sincerely held belief,” he said.

Whether other people who share the same faith believe there is no problem with the vaccine is irrelevant, Gannam argues. Nor does it matter whether a clergy member validates the exemption request, he said.

“The sincerity of the belief is essentially presumed, unless the employer has some actual fact, some reason, to doubt or refute what the employee is claiming as a religious belief,” he said.

Gannam said he hoped the cases being brought by Liberty Counsel in federal court will help “set the legal landscape” and provide future guidance on the issues.

Liberty Counsel also was handling calls from students across the country opposed to campus vaccine mandates, said Gannam.

Fisher, the Buffalo bishop, addressed concerns that the Covid-19 vaccines were developed using stem cells from an aborted fetus.

None of the Covid-19 vaccines contain any genetic material from aborted fetuses. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using a cell line that was derived from a fetus that was aborted in 1985. Neither of the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna rely on the use of stem cells, but it's believed that testing of those vaccines during clinical trials did utilize those cell lines, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Catholic doctrine strongly opposes abortion as gravely sinful, but the Vatican’s chief office for interpreting doctrine noted that the connections to an abortion were “remote” and that the shots “can be used in good conscience with certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also recommended the use of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, if the option is available, rather than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Catholics can in good conscience arrive at a personal decision to refrain from getting the vaccine, Fisher said. But he noted that priests won’t be providing letters affirming a religious exemption.

“No one can speak for the conscience of another person,” he said. “Only the person who arrived at such a conclusion can attest to the basis of their decision to resist getting vaccinated.”

Nancy M. Rourke, an associate professor at Canisius College, said making use of a product or treatment that was created using methods or materials derived through morally dubious ways can be considered a “kind of participation.”

But, she added, “It’s really, really hard to participate in anything that’s completely clear of moral sketchiness. I don’t think it’s possible, honestly.”

Rourke said a religious belief argument against being vaccinated seems to be “fishing around for a way to bring the unborn into it and to bring that issue into it more prominently.”

“But it’s being done in a way that runs right over a more obvious and immediate problem, which is that kids are getting sick from the virus, and they got it from people who are more than likely unvaccinated,” said Rourke, who teaches religious studies and health care ethics. “What I see here is actually a political position being put forward as if it were religiously founded.”

The Rev. Paul D. Seil, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, said he was grateful that Fisher sent out a letter on religious exemptions.

Seil recently tweeted that he had received a phone call from a college student seeking a religious exemption from the vaccine to return to campus.

The man wasn’t a member of his parish, so Seil said he referred him to the diocese.

“I’m glad that the bishop clarified that we really don’t have the option of giving those letters because it is not based on the teaching overall of the Catholic Church, even though the church respects individual conscience,” said Seil.

Seil worked for a year as a chaplain at Catholic Health’s post-acute care center for Covid-19 patients and saw plenty of suffering and death due to the highly contagious disease.

“Now with this increase of the [Delta] variant, we’re really trying to make sure that people know [vaccination] is something the church says is a good thing and something we should do for one another, as well as for ourselves,” he said.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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My byline has run in the Ithaca Journal, USA Today, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Times. I have been a staff reporter at The Buffalo News since 2002 and currently am part of the watchdog team.

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