Religious exemptions: Where do different faiths stand on COVID-19 vaccinations?

Coronavirus

An Orthodox worshiper, wearing a mask for protection against the COVID-19 infection, prays during a religious service, on the first day of the Saint Dimitrie Basarabov pilgrimage in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR) — On Thursday, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America released a statement on religious exemptions and the COVID-19 vaccine.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, the highest clergy member of the Greek Orthodox religion in the United States, met with Bishops from across the country on a video conference. The group unanimously affirmed that the Church not only permits vaccinations against diseases but “encourages Her Faithful, after medical tests and approbations, to be vaccinated with the approved vaccines against SARS-CoV-2”, according to a statement from the Archdiocese.

The statement continues on to read:

In addition, although some may be exempt from the vaccination for clear medical reasons, there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for Her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons, including the coronavirus vaccine. For this reason, letters of exemption for the vaccination against the coronavirus for religious purposes issued by priests of the Archdiocese of America have no validity, and furthermore, no clergy are to issue such religious exemption letters for any reason.


But what are other religious leaders saying about the COVID-19 vaccines?

Catholicism

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has urged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and said that getting the shot is an “act of love”.

“Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from COVID-19,” The Pope said in the video below. He continued on to say that vaccines, “bring hope to end the pandemic, but only if they are available to all and if we collaborate with one another.”

Pope Francis received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine back in January, according to The Vatican.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops shared in the fall of 2020 a statement clearing up confusion on the Catholic Church’s views on the COVID vaccines.

Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development, or production. They are not completely free from any connection to abortion, however, as both Pfizer and Moderna made use of a tainted cell line for one of the confirmatory lab tests of their products. There is thus a connection, but it is relatively remote.

Some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching.

….

It is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.

Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades, and Most Reverend Joseph F. Naumann

In March of 2021, the organization questioned the moral permissibility of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production.  The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.[1] However, if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.  

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities

Judaism

Mitzvah is one of the Torah’s 613 Divine commandments; a good deed or religious precept, according to Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin. Rabbi Shurpin writes “guarding your own health doesn’t only make sense, it’s actually a mitzvah. That means that even if you don’t want to do it, for whatever reason, you are still obligated to do so. The Torah is teaching us that our body is a gift from God, and we are therefore not the owners of it and we can’t cause it any damage.”

The three major branches of modern Judaism include Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative. Organizations and leaders across the three branches have released statements in support of vaccinations.

The Union for Reform Judaism is governed by a 253-member North American board of trustees that work with other URJ leaders and members of the professional staff. In 2015, the Resolution on Mandatory Immunization laws was adopted after being submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. The resolution states:

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Union for Reform Judaism:

  1. Affirms that in the case of mandatory immunizations, pikuach nefesh and refu’ah bedukah are our guiding principles. Reform Jewish religious tenets prioritize protecting the health of all individuals, the most medically vulnerable members of the community, and the community as a whole, and do not provide a basis for a religious exemption from mandatory immunizations.
  2. Supports mandatory immunization laws, with the only acceptable exemptions being:
    1. Medical exemptions; and
    2. Religious exemptions, which must be suspended if community immunity is deemed at risk by public health officials.
  3. Urges Reform Movement congregations and institutions to
    1. Adopt policies that require mandatory vaccinations with medical exemptions in programs that serve children and youth; and
    2. Educate members and the broader community about the scientific evidence and Jewish values in support of mandatory vaccinations.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis released a statement in April saying that the organization:

  • urges its members and members of the communities we serve to be vaccinated, unless ineligible or medically disqualified; and
  • calls upon all Reform rabbis, leaders, congregations, camps, schools, and institutions to be role models by following their state and local guidelines on obtaining the vaccine against COVID-19 for all eligible individuals as they become available, prioritizing those most at risk; and
  • deems it the responsibility and the right of our Reform Jewish institutions to continue to evaluate and implement meaningful safety precautions, that may include social distancing, proper mask-wearing, and other appropriate protocols for in-person communal activities until deemed safe; and
  • encourages Reform institutions to follow the CDC guidelines in reopening and gathering; and
  • calls upon governments to ensure that vaccinations and vaccination education are available to the whole population, with special attention to at-risk populations and historically underserved communities.

And the Orthodox Union released a statement in support of COVID-19 vaccinations:

As we look forward to the celebration of Pesach, we are profoundly grateful that many regions are beginning to see some lifting of the pandemic limitations, particularly due to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. We hope and pray that the vaccination campaign will gather even more momentum, allowing all of us to soon be afforded its protection and ultimately defeating the virus. We salute our shuls and communities for their efforts in vaccine education and facilitation of appointments and vaccine access.


Islam

The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America said in a statement that there is no way to stop the pandemic besides reaching herd immunity. Herd immunity requires a certain percentage of a population have immunity to a virus. The AMJA says this can happen one of two ways:

  1. Allowing the infection to spread among the people without curtailing it
  2. Vaccinating people against the virus

The first way does not conform with the Sharia, because it risks the lives of people, particularly the weak, which is in direct conflict with the intent of the legislator with regard to preserving all human lives. Its harms go beyond the realm of public health to affect people’s worship and livelihood and other aspects of their lives.

The second way is through vaccination, which is congruent with the Sharia and reason. The permissibility of taking medicine to repel an existing disease or prevent an expected one is a matter of consensus among the people of knowledge. The point of contention is whether it is obligatory or not, and various fiqh councils have addressed this matter in detail, and one of the cases where taking medicine is obligatory is when the disease may harm others. This may apply to the case of COVID-19, which is extremely contagious.

AMJA Resident Fatwa Committee

Many Muslims who strictly practice Islam avoid pork. The National Muslim COVID-19 Task Force shared in December 2020 that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, “contain fat, salts/buffer agents, and sugar (sucrose). The fat is not made from pork products.”

In a joint statement with the National Black Muslim COVID Coalition, the National Muslim Taskforce on COVID-19 shared two points:

1. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines DO NOT contain pork products or alcohol and were NOT made using aborted fetal stem cells. They are made using novel mRNA technology.

2. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works similarly to older vaccines. They do not have pork products, but have been manufactured using cell lines from aborted fetal stem cells. However, many juridical authorities have deemed them permissible to use given the societal and individual health needs to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 (NMTF) and National Black Muslim COVID Coalition (NBMCC)

For 29 to 30 days each year, Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset, they do not eat or drink anything. In 2021, Ramadan was from mid-April to mid-May, a time when more people had become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The National Muslim COVID-19 Taskforce shared a statement from the Fiqh Council of North America prior to Ramadan stating that COVID-19 vaccines do not invalidate fasting.

“All non-nutritional injections taken by the muscles are permissible to take during fasting, according to most Muslim jurists. It is permissible to take COVID Vaccine injection during fasting in Ramadan or at any time. It will not invalidate the fast because it has no nutritional value and it is injected into the muscle.”


Buddhism

Buddhism has no central authority that determines doctrine, but The Dalai Lama received his COVID-19 vaccine in India in March which was shared on his YouTube page.

After receiving his shot, the Dalai Lama said, “those other patients also should take this injection for greater benefit,” calling the shot “very very helpful”.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

The First Presidency, the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, urged Latter-day Saints to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in August.

To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.

Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, Henry B. Eyring

Christian Science

A small branch of Christianity, Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy released a statement on vaccinations and public health.

According to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, “One of the basic teachings of this denomination is that disease can be cured or prevented by focused prayer and members will often request exemptions when available. However, there are no strict rules against vaccination and members can receive required vaccinations.”

For more than a century, our denomination has counseled respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination. Christian Scientists report suspected communicable disease, obey quarantines, and strive to cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials. We see this as a matter of basic Golden Rule ethics and New Testament love.

As for the issue of exemptions for vaccination in the law, Christian Scientists’ perspective on this issue may be unique. In the past, many public officials have been broadly supportive of exemptions when these have not been considered a danger to the wider community. In more recent years, public health concerns relating to vaccinations have risen as exemptions from them have been claimed by larger numbers. Christian Scientists recognize the seriousness of these concerns.

Most of our church members normally rely on prayer for healing. It’s a deeply considered spiritual practice and way of life that has meant a lot to us over the years. So we’ve appreciated vaccination exemptions and sought to use them conscientiously and responsibly, when they have been granted.

On the other hand, our practice isn’t a dogmatic thing. 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.

A Christian Science perspective on vaccination and public health

Christianity

As there are many Christian denominations, not all were broken down in this article. According to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the following Christian denominations have no theological objection to vaccination:

  • Roman Catholicism
  • Eastern Orthodox
  • Oriental Orthodox
  • Amish
  • Anglican
  • Baptist
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints​ (Mormon)
  • Congregational
  • Episcopalian
  • Jehovah’s Witness – Note: This denomination originally denounced vaccination, but revised this doctrine in 1952. An article in a recent issue of the church’s newsletter promotes vaccination to avoid infectious diseases.
  • Lutheran
  • Mennonite
  • Methodist (including African Methodist Episcopal)
  • Quaker
  • Pentecostal
  • Presbyterian
  • Seventh-Day Adventist
  • Unitarian-Universalist

Vanderbilt University Medical Center says the following denominations do have a theological objection to vaccination:

  • Dutch Reformed Congregations – This denomination has a tradition of declining immunizations. Some members decline vaccination on the basis that it interferes with divine providence. However, others within the faith accept immunization as a gift from God to be used with gratitude.
  • Faith healing denominations including:
  • Faith Tabernacle
  • Church of the First Born
  • Faith Assembly
  • End Time Ministrie
  • Church of Christ, Scientist 

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