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About Those Religious Exemptions

Dr. James Emery White

It seems that suddenly a lot of people have not only gotten “religious,” but deeply concerned with making principled religious stands. Well, at least with making one principled religious stand.

Not getting vaccinated.

As more and more vaccine mandates are being rolled out for schools and businesses, hospitals and government agencies, it is putting people who are resistant to the jab in a quandary. They don’t want the vaccination, but they also don’t want to lose their job.

Seemingly to the rescue come “religious exemptions.” Almost every vaccine mandate allows for demonstrable medical exemptions as well as demonstrable religious exemptions. The first can be clearly demonstrated; the second is trickier.

There are legitimate religious exemptions. If you are part of the Christian Science Church (which, despite its name, is most certainly not a part of historic Christian orthodoxy), you do not believe in medicine at all. To take an aspirin, much less a vaccine, is in direct violation of your faith’s beliefs.

But that’s pretty much it. Every major world religion – Christianity, Islam, Judaism – puts significant emphasis on principles calling for staying healthy through every available medical means to prevent infection as well as doing whatever it takes to preserve human life. Even more to the point, there is not a single major world religion that objects to vaccines, including the vaccines for COVID-19.

Consider Christianity. The Catholic Church does not oppose vaccines and Pope Francis has said that ethically, everyone should have one. On the Protestant front, Russell Moore of Christianity Today and former head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted that we should spread the gospel, not a virus (so get vaccinated), and that it is primarily misinformation driving the hesitancy to avoid vaccination.

He’s right. The six biggest myths being believed are:

  1. The vaccines aren’t safe because they were developed quickly.
  2. Thousands of people have died from the vaccines.
  3. The vaccines are experimental and weren’t tested thoroughly.
  4. Natural immunity is always stronger than vaccines.
  5. The vaccines aren’t safe for pregnant women.
  6. The vaccines change your DNA.

You can read why each is based on misinformation here and here.

Yet in Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry created a form for those who object to mask and vaccine mandates, allowing them to assert that they do not consent to “forcing a face covering on my child, who is created in the image of God…. I believe that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that I am called to honor God in how I care for my body.”

As a Christian pastor, theology professor and former seminary president, I will need someone to explain to me why wearing a face mask in a pandemic is at odds with being created in the image of God. If the idea is that the image of God is captured in our face, that would be news. Two thousand years of Christian theology has placed that firmly in the camp of having a soul and being able to respond to – and be in a relationship with – the living God. It has nothing to do with whether our face is covered.

And yes, we are called to honor God in how we care for our body. But again, it is only misinformation that would say taking the vaccine is being purposefully harmful to your body. Even more misguided is the idea that the vaccine is more harmful to your body than the COVID-19 virus and its many variants.

If you want to hold to a “the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” argument, then here are the facts: More than 600,000 people have died from COVID in the U.S. alone; 600,000 have not died from the vaccine.

So which most honors the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit? A vaccine to protect against COVID or to allow COVID to enter your body? Particularly now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval.

Anthony Fauci, considered America’s leading medical adviser on matters related to epidemiology over multiple administrations – Republican and Democrat – has said religious exemptions are “something we should look at…. If there is a legitimate religious exemption, fine. I am one of the people who respect the tenets of religion. But if people make it up, and it’s really a philosophical reason and they’re saying it’s religious, that’s not good.”

No, it’s not. 

And because no major world religion would say its tenets support such an exemption, it seems more philosophy than faith. This is why few expect such attempts to stand up in court. As employment law attorney Joshua Van Kampen noted regarding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religion-based discrimination, it was “never intended to allow employees to circumvent public health and safety requirements.” Going further, he said that if, for example, someone received a flu shot but then cited religion to avoid the COVID-19 vaccination, that likely won’t pass a legal challenge. 

Van Kampen’s law firm has received numerous requests to represent people trying to cite religious exemptions to avoid getting vaccinated. They’ve turned down each one. “Those cases are not going to be meritorious in our opinion,” Herrmann said.

I honestly have no interest in getting into a vaccine debate with anyone. I have understood those who have had genuine vaccine hesitancy in the early roll-out of the vaccine. But now with full FDA approval, I hope they will make a fresh evaluation of that hesitancy.

I obviously support those who have genuine medical conditions and whose primary care physicians are cautioning them to wait. 

What I have little patience for are those who insist on clinging to misinformation or who refuse vaccination in order to make a political point. Even more repugnant to me are those who would try to bring Jesus into this for a personally and/or politically motivated religious exemption. They don’t want to be forced to get the vaccine, so they “use” Jesus. That is making a mockery of not only authentic spirituality, but a mockery of Jesus Himself.

And God will allow many things, but one thing He will not allow,

… is to be mocked.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Maureen Groppe, “‘Trust God to be our healer:’ As COVID-19 vaccine mandates grow, so are requests for religious exemptions,” USA Today, August 16, 2021, read online.

Adelle M. Banks, “Russell Moore: Sickness, death from COVID-19 likely reducing some vaccine hesitancy,” Religion News Service, August 10, 2021, read online.

Susie Webb, “Charlotte churches offer religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. Will they work?” The Charlotte Observer, August 14, 2021, read online.

 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.