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What's behind religious exemptions to the Covid-19 vaccine

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Compare Biden’s takeaway from the church’s leader in Rome with the stance of its US leadership: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops thinks individual bishops should have the right to deny the sacrament to the nation’s second Catholic President over the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights.
I bring this up not to highlight a rift in the church, but as a prelude to looking at the Covid-19 vaccine, another very important issue where individual feelings, religious beliefs and public policy collide.
The collision is happening before our eyes.
  • More Americans eligible for vaccines soon. The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in children ages 5-11. Assuming a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel concurs, it could be going into little arms next week.
  • States seek to protect vaccine objectors. Iowa passed a law extending unemployment benefits to those fired for not complying with vaccine requirements and strengthened language for religious exemptions.
  • States are fighting the federal government over vaccine requirements. Florida sued the federal government over its vaccine requirement for federal workers.
  • The Supreme Court has declined to get involved. Health care workers in Maine asked the US Supreme Court to force the state to honor their request for religious exemptions to the vaccine. The court denied the request Friday night.
  • This is a debate happening on an individual basis every day. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Monday issued guidance for how employees can seek religious exemptions and making clear that companies can ask employees for more information about the requests.
Where few religious exemptions are granted. What caught my eye was a Washington Post report Thursday on how up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have failed to comply with orders to get a Covid-19 vaccine and could face termination.
Deeper in the story was this interesting tidbit about religious exemptions in the Army and Navy:
The Army, which is the largest military service, has granted just one permanent medical exemption and no religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine, officials said. The Navy hasn’t granted any religious exemptions for any vaccine — for the coronavirus or otherwise — in the past seven years.
Religious exemptions are much more common in other sectors of society, although no major religion opposes the Covid-19 vaccine — and that includes Christian Science, whose church members focus on prayer, not medicine, for healing. Read a very interesting perspective on the Covid-19 vaccination at the Christian Science website.
“Church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church,” it says.
And there are clearly churches offering exemptions to those who don’t want to get the vaccine.
As Kaiser Health News reported in September:
  • In Northern California, the pastor of a megachurch hands out religious exemption forms to the faithful.
  • A New Mexico state senator will “help you articulate a religious exemption” by pointing to the decades-old use of aborted fetal cells in the development of some vaccines.
  • And a Texas-based evangelist offers exemption letters to anyone — for a suggested “donation” starting at $25.
Who wants a religious exemption? While the Pope has supported the use of vaccines, CNN’s Miguel Marquez talked to two health care workers seeking religious exemptions to the vaccine in September who were prepared to lose their jobs rather than comply with a requirement from New York state and get the shot.
“I feel he’s a hypocrite,” said Stephanie Touchet, a medical assistant and a Catholic.
“This is God’s messenger on Earth. This is the Bishop of Rome,” Marquez pointed out to her.
“He is. He was elected to that position. However, he’s not abiding by the Bible,” she said.
Many of the people who object to the vaccine for religious reasons cite the use of aborted fetal cells in the development of the vaccines as a reason to oppose them.
This is a specious argument, but complicated.
Here’s how one CNN report described the use of fetal cell lines from abortions in the 1970s and 1980s in the Covid-19 vaccines:
The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were developed using aborted cell lines, though the final product does not contain fetal cells. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were not manufactured from fetal cell lines and the final product does not contain fetal cells, although their testing used these cell lines.
Even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops dismissed this line of reasoning in a November 2020 memo to bishops on the use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
But there’s a difference between endorsing a vaccine and agreeing it should be required, and Catholic authorities have always noted the importance of individual conscience.
Those willing to leave work rather than get the shot. It’s a tiny fraction of the Air Force who rejected the Covid-19 vaccine mandate — more than 96% of those working for the service have complied with the requirement, according to data supplied to the Post. Not all of those who are refusing the vaccine are seeking religious exemptions. Service members already get a battery of vaccines, including those that were developed using cells similar to those used in the development of the Covid-19 vaccines.
A small fraction of a very large workforce is still a lot of people, and there will likely be firings across the armed services, although other branches have given their members more time to obtain the vaccine.
The larger federal requirement is not yet done. The Biden administration still has not finalized a public health ruling that would compel vaccination among workers at companies with more than 100 employees. Read the latest on that process here.
Plenty of government agencies and companies are forging ahead on their own. In an odd twist on the history of American organized labor — which was born from workers’ efforts to protect themselves from collapsing coal mines and defective meat grinders — unions are backing a minority of workers to reject the vaccine while putting at risk the majority of workers’ physical safety. Upton Sinclair would be flummoxed.
What will the courts do? The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on a vaccine requirement in more than 100 years, and it declined to weigh in on requirements at Indiana University and in New York City schools before its move Friday night.
The emergency request by Maine health care workers, with its focus on religious freedom, did draw more interest from the court’s more conservative wing.
Writing for his two conservative colleagues, Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed to the fact that “unlike comparable rules in most states,” Maine’s “contains no exemption for those whose sincerely held religious beliefs preclude them from accepting the vaccination” but it does have a medical exemption.
This issue isn’t going anywhere, and the court will surely be asked to weigh in again.

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