Vaccine hesitancy has never been a core religious belief of evangelical Christians. The vast majority of evangelicals have historically chosen to be immunized against polio, measles, tetanus and other diseases. As a child, I attended evangelical summer camps that required vaccinations, and as an adult, I worked for ministries with similar mandates. Some conservative evangelicals just don’t like the political taste of this particular vaccine on the menu.
Even if we grant that individual Christians sincerely (though mistakenly) believe that their religious faith prohibits a coronavirus vaccination, that still does not justify an exemption. “Sincerity” does not justify putting others at risk. I can sincerely (though mistakenly) believe I should sacrifice a burnt offering to God. All the sincerity in my heart does not justify my setting my neighbor’s house on fire in the process.
There are, however, proper applications for religious exemptions in other cases. For instance, if my employer offered a mindfulness seminar that required me to utter incantations to a New Age deity, I as a Christian should be able to request a religious exemption. The biggest threat to any legitimate right is the illegitimate abuse of that right.
But even with legitimate religious claims sincerely held, the law allows companies to forgo offering exemptions if doing so places an “undue hardship” on the employer. Increasing the risk of bringing an infectious disease into the workplace certainly qualifies. For jobs that involve exposure to vulnerable populations, minimizing that risk via immunization is clearly an appropriate job requirement. Religious freedom for a teacher who opposes vaccines does not mean having the right to jeopardize children by being unvaccinated. Religious freedom means that if she doesn’t wish to fulfill her employer’s job requirement, she is free to find another job.
All employers should eliminate any religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines for Christians, period. New York State has removed its religious exemption option for health care workers, and other institutions should follow suit.
Similarly, religious leaders will need to join with secular institutions in opposing exemptions. Pastors are already being inundated with requests for letters supporting exemptions. As a former pastor of an evangelical church, I know it will be difficult to say “no.” But my colleagues should do the right thing and refuse such requests. Refuse to mislead our secular neighbors. Refuse to abuse our precious religious liberty. Refuse to be complicit in putting our neighbors at risk.
We need to keep trying to persuade those hesitant to get a vaccine. But we also need to allow employer vaccine mandates to erect a trustworthy shield that protects staff members, patients, customers, students and others. Religious exemptions risk blowing a hole in that shield, jeopardizing everyone.