More than 700,000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 pandemic in the last 18 months, and the numbers continue to grow, even with the widely available vaccine. Americans haven’t perished in numbers like these since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 or the Civil War. Thousands of people have lost loved ones, and this is a moment of profound tragedy and grief. As the public and the government lose patience with the vaccine-hesitant groups and increase pressure on them to get vaccinated, the questions around religious exemptions continue to grow.
Those holding out may eventually comply with mandates so they can get back to their everyday lives. Still, it’s also likely that some of these religious exemption claims will go to court, where a judge will have to balance the interests of the faithful against the public health needs and determine who among the hesitant have genuine religious objections and who is faking. So what would Jesus do about vaccine mandates? Jesus would encourage everyone to get vaccinated for the greater good of the community.
The Religious Community and Vaccination
There is evidence that vaccine hesitancy differs among religious groups. A July survey from the Public Research Institute found that close to 80-85 percent of Catholic and Jewish Americans said they accepted the vaccine, while 75 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans took the same position. Almost two-thirds of Latter-day Saints and Black Protestants favored vaccination in the same survey. The lowest acceptance rates were among Hispanic Protestants and white evangelicals, among whom over half of adherents describe themselves as favorable toward the vaccine.
There are also signs that faith leaders can play an essential role in fostering vaccine acceptance. In August, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement urging followers to get vaccinated. Leaders shared that scientists have proven the vaccine to be safe and effective. They went on to say that humanity can win the war against COVID-19 if everyone follows the recommendations of medical experts and government officials. After releasing this statement, the vaccination rates in Utah increased.
One advantage of vaccine mandates is that no religious group forbids vaccination outright, even two Christian denominations well known for refusing medical practices on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who oppose blood transfusions on biblical grounds, see vaccination as a personal choice. The Christian Science Movement, which typically uses prayer instead of medical treatment, noted that it appreciated vaccination exemptions and wanted to use them carefully and responsibly when necessary. At the same time, they said that it isn’t a dogmatic thing and that members are free to make their own choices on all-life decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate.
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be grounds for challenges from members of larger denominations. For example, some Catholic bishops in the United States raised concerns about fetal cell lines in vaccines. Cell lines derived from two Dutch abortions in the 1970s and the 1980s played a role in researching and creating the vaccines for Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Pfizer and Moderna only used the cell lines to test their vaccine’s effectiveness.
The Vatican’s leading doctrinal organ issued a statement last December that asserted that receiving the vaccine was still morally acceptable to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the absence of a more ethical alternative. Pope Francis also described the vaccine as an act of love and a simple but profound way to promote the common good and care for each other, especially the vulnerable community.
Vaccination and Religious Exemptions
Non Catholics aren’t obligated to follow the Vatican’s view on the vaccine, but even some Catholics resist the church’s stance. Earlier in 2021, a group of Catholic doctors and nurses and one Baptist nurse in New York sued the state to block its mandate for health care workers to get vaccinated, citing religious grounds. Their complaint stated that they sided with Catholic bishops who opposed vaccination because of fetal cell lines. A judge ultimately granted their request for a temporary restraining order against the mandate while the legal challenges work their way through the court system.
Another complicating factor is the legitimacy of their beliefs. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only a handful of states allow religious exemptions to vaccine mandates for school-aged children. However, some evidence suggests that many parents who invoke religious exemptions do so under pretenses. In a 2014 law review article, University of California Hastings law professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss found multiple examples of parents in anti-vax Facebook groups and internet forums. These parents openly told one another that they lied about their religious beliefs to claim an exemption and told others how to do the same.
It’s unclear how these religious exemptions and all their complexities will play out in court. Laws vary from state to state, and even the federal government is still trying to figure it out. Recent guidance for federal employees on President Biden’s mandate says that an agency may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who communicate to the agency that they aren’t vaccinated due to disability or a religious belief, practice, or observation.
Jesus’ Stance on Vaccine Mandates
The Bible says a lot about doing the best for your community. The idea of community comes from the sense of responsibility that we have for each other. Proverbs 27:17 says that iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Jesus would agree with vaccine mandates; He would do so because He knows that vaccination is best for the community. He would especially consider the elderly and vulnerable community. Unfortunately, today’s society is focused solely on self and individualism. Everyone believes that all they have to look out for is themselves.
Jesus would remind everyone that that’s not true. It is the community’s responsibility to look out for one another. Romans 12:5 reminds us that we form one body in Christ, and each member belongs to all the others. This verse reminds us that we are all of one body, and we belong to each other. Jesus also wouldn’t be too happy about those who falsely claim religious exemptions. If there were vaccination clinics in biblical times, Jesus would be there, and He would encourage others to do the same. The only way to beat the COVID-19 virus is as a community, and that’s what Jesus would want.