The COVID-19 Vaccine And The Case For Religious Exemption, Part 1

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The COVID-19 vaccine (collectively referring to those by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, and AstraZeneca) still bears Emergency Use Authorization at this point, though the vaccine is now mandatory for US soldiers and federal workers. Schools are starting to mandate the vaccine as well, though some colleges and universities are giving the choice over 1) vaccination proof documentation or 2) weekly testing to students and Fall returnees. Leading Chief Infections Specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci says that official FDA authorization is a technical issue only, but it’s more than that. And with some vaccine-induced side effects and deaths from the vaccine (yes, even these exist), to get or not get the vaccine is truly a matter of soul-searching and conscience-weighing.

I’ve heard recently of some students in high schools and colleges and universities requesting religious exemptions from immunizations, in particular, the COVID-19 vaccine. I was asked recently about the religious exemption, what it is, and why do some Christians in particular use it with regard to vaccinations. It hit me then and there that there are so many Christians that have never even heard of religious exemption and have never used it with regard to school immunizations for themselves or their children.

So with that said, a good post is in order.

What is religious exemption?

Religious exemption for vaccines allows for students, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities (and employees in businesses and companies) to state their case as to why they refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Since this is a “religious” exemption, someone filing such a form must make a religious or spiritual case as to why they refuse to receive the vaccine. In some instances, individuals are part of spiritual groups or followings that are against taking any forms of medication. If it is a firmly-taught religious belief in your specific spiritual group that medicines are anti-God and are against His healing power (for example), then you can state this in a religious exemption form.

I want to make this clear, though: you cannot use the reason of “the COVID-19 vaccine is not officially FDA-approved” to make your case for a religious exemption. The reason? Official FDA approval is not a spiritual or religious issue, but rather, a scientific/medical one. The religious exemption form asks for specific spiritual reasons. These include things such as 1) something your faith teaches that contradicts the COVID-19 vaccine, 2) something in your denominational/spiritual group documents, books, or guidelines that oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, 3) your spiritual group’s doctrine that warns you against taking medications or vaccines altogether, and so on. I am not aware of every specific faith doctrine in every faith group in the United States or across the world, so with that said, there are a myriad of spiritual discussions one can write about when filling out a religious exemption form.

The point I’m making here is this: make sure your reasons for filing for religious exemption are religious and spiritual in nature. You can’t file a religious exemption with scientific reasons and expect your exemption to be accepted. This means that if you’re opposed to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, if your conscience is against it, you’ll have to sit down and deliberate about why you feel getting the vaccine goes against your spiritual and religious convictions. Think through your reasons and make sure your reasons make sense. Talk with your pastor if you must, or a church member or spiritual group leader if you have concerns but don’t know how to voice them or write about them. They can give you guidance about how to do this.

But with that said, some are reading this thinking, “Are there any valid religious reasons against vaccines?” My sister asked me this yesterday. It reminded me that there are so many who think the whole religious exemption filing and claim is nothing more than just a cleverly-disguised rouse to get out of doing something. That is, some believe that when people file for religious exemption, they’re doing so simply to get out of doing something they don’t want to do. That isn’t the case for some, though I cannot speak for all.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valid reasons to file for religious exemption with regard to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Valid reasons for religious exemption

Aborted fetal-derived cell testing

This is one of the first reasons why some file a religious exemption with regard to vaccines. For a number of conservative Christians, they cannot approve vaccines in their heart and mind because many are tested on cell lines that stem from aborted fetuses. Most cell lines today that are used to develop and test COVID-19 drugs (such as the COVID cocktail from Regeneron) stem from aborted fetuses from the 1970s. One such aborted fetus comes from the Netherlands, and it is said to be the one from whom all cell lines derive. Today’s fetal cell testing is done not from the cells of that original fetus, it is argued, but rather from fetal cells “cloned” or “grown” from it. In other words, the original fetal cells have been used to grow other fetal cells (that are clones of the original fetal cells). These cloned fetal cells are being used to test and develop medications and vaccines today.

Some see no issue in the use of aborted fetal-derived cells (“derived” and “original” cells are two different things and must be distinguished, they say) being used to test drugs that will save lives. However, there are those who disagree. Those who disagree are pro-life and believe that using drugs created from fetal cells of any kind, whether from the aborted fetus itself or from the cloned cells of that fetus, is sin, immoral, and against God. And so, to these Christians, it seems illogical and contradictory that some Christians can claim to be pro-life while 1) approving of abortions, even undergoing abortion procedures themselves) and 2) using drugs derived from abortion practices.

In other words, these Christians would say the following: “If you’re pro-life and anti-abortion, then you should be against abortion-derived drugs. Anything that stems from abortions, even cell testing, is wrong because abortion is wrong.” These same Christians would not fault someone who received an abortion to medically save her life (the life of the mother). They would not fault someone who couldn’t carry a fetus because it would cause her harm. They understand that it’s not right to “take a life to save a life,” as the saying goes, so they wouldn’t expect the mother to give her life in order to save the life of the child within her. They wouldn’t frown upon the mother terminating the pregnancy to save her own life. To be sure, they don’t want any life lost, but they wouldn’t frown upon this dilemma decision in such a complex situation.

And yet, they would still say that, despite the reason for the abortion, using any cells from an aborted fetus for testing on drugs (and in this case, the COVID-19 vaccine) is wrong. Why?

We’ve mentioned their view that abortions are sinful, evil, and against God, but there’s more to the argument than just the evil nature of abortion.

Religious exemption claim: abortions violate the personhood and rights of the child

This is where some Christians veer to the right away from atheists. The law of the US Constitution says that children under a certain number of weeks aren’t considered to be children, but rather, fetuses, and, as Law and Order SVU says in one of its cases where a girl and her boyfriend dealt blunt-force trauma to her belly (and thus, the baby), “a fetus isn’t a person under the law.” Whereas some conservative Christians believe that life begins at conception, that even a new fetus is a person, science (as practiced by people) doesn’t afford this view of the fetus as a person.

The view that many atheists uphold, and the humanistic practice of science (which cannot comment on God because God is not subject to test-tube testing) says, is that a baby is not a person because it does not live outside the womb until birth. Until the fetus draws its first breath, in the atheist view, a fetus is not a person. Christians believe that before they were born, God formed them in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:15-16) and that they are a person with rights before their first breath or cry is recorded on earth. So with that said, the aborted fetus from the Netherlands in the 1970s was a person who had rights.

When the mother chose to abort her child, for whatever reason, she denied the child the right to life — which is guaranteed to every US citizen according to the Declaration of Independence. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are rights given to every man, woman, and child by their Creator. If this is true, conservative Christians believe, then the aborted child (they call the fetus a child in this view) had rights and their personhood was violated in the abortion.

The child’s personhood was violated when their mother chose to abort them and an abortion doctor performed the procedure. But now, the aborted child is violated again when their cells are used to 1) grow other fetal cells and 2) engage in testing and research without their consent. They should consent to their cells being used in scientific development and research, and they had no say in it. Thus, they are twice a victim, twice violated, twice discarded, twice disregarded.

These same Christians would say that all Christians who are pro-life must be anti-abortion unless the life of the mother is at stake. And if the mother chooses to abort the child for any other reason than to save her life medically, then that mother has committed a sin. And if the abortion occurs because of sin (for a reason other than to save her life), any benefit from it, including life-saving drugs and vaccines, is sinful. And in this view, anyone who accepts those life-saving drugs and vaccines is giving in to sin and is just as guilty as the mother who aborted her child and the doctor who performed the surgical procedure.

Conservative Christians have been saying this for years, and this remains a valid stance for religious exemption. To those who would say otherwise, they would say the following: “You can’t be pro-life but pro-abortion for drugs, vaccines, and research. If you are pro-life, then you must learn how to consistently live this out. What does it mean to be consistently pro-life? It means that you don’t use life-saving drugs and vaccines that stem from life-taking abortions.”

Some would disagree with this stance, saying that they are not responsible for 1) that mother’s decision, 2) the abortion doctor’s decision to proceed, or 3) the drug companies that test new drugs and vaccines. And since they are not closely responsible, they aren’t guilty of mortal sin.

And yet, if you take money given to you, knowing it was stolen, and clone it to make more money or spend it, are you not responsible because you failed to turn it in to the police? Someone spending the money could say, “I didn’t steal it,” but if you spend it and fail to turn it in, you’re just as guilty as the thief who took it from the bank, the woman’s purse, or the man’s wallet. You’re not absolved of guilt because you didn’t have a direct hand in the theft.

And conservatives filing for religious exemption would say the same thing applies to the COVID-19 vaccine: though it is being tested on aborted fetal-derived cells that they didn’t grow, from an abortion procedure that they didn’t perform or give consent to, that still doesn’t justify someone taking advantage of a life-saving treatment such as the COVID-19 vaccine. Direct sin or indirect sin, they would say, a sin is still a sin is still a sin. And those who would benefit from sin are sinners, too.

Again, you may not feel this way, but I think every viewpoint should be published in print, whether you and I agree or not.

conclusion

In this post, we’ve covered one reason why conservative Christians file religious exemption clauses. Keep in mind that those of other faith groups and religions believe much of the same, even if they don’t believe Jesus is God. After all, Christianity is based on Jesus Christ being God. Other faiths do not believe this, but they do believe in a Creator of some sort, whether Allah (Muslim), the Israelite God (Jews who don’t believe in Jesus), or some creature, creation, or person. There are many religious groups that advocate for the sanctity of human life and agree with conservative Christians who have moral issues with the COVID-19 vaccine.

These same groups are not opposed to the life-saving benefits of vaccines. To be sure, many religious and spiritual groups want to see people cured of sicknesses and diseases, living long and healthy lives. They don’t want anyone to die from COVID-19. And yet, in their desire to see life-saving treatments administered, they don’t want many other Christians and religious people to become so consumed by the COVID-19 vaccines’ life-saving measures that they morally compromise on the nature of the vaccine itself.

For them, the ends (that is, the life-saving benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine) do not justify the means (that is, aborted fetal cells used in vaccine testing and development). Those in this camp who file for religious exemption believe that many Christians have a utilitarian, secular philosophy that says, “if it saves lives, what’s the harm?” The problem with this is that, if something is God-approved but not useful, then, according to this view, it should be tossed. And yet, God’s Word tells us that some things are right, even if we don’t reap any benefit from them. Doing what is right is pleasing to God, even if believers are ostracized in society because of it.

For these Christians and religious adherents, there are other, more morally upright and God-approved ways to administer healing and therapeutic treatments to the sick. As of this point, though, the COVID-19 vaccine is all we have to fight this pandemic.

They would encourage many to wait until better, more God-approved medicinal measures arrive, but the pandemic and the Delta and Delta Plus variants have put so many in emergency mode that many will take the vaccine despite these moral issues.

There is another reason that could make the case for religious exemption. We’ll cover it in the next post.

Stay tuned.

Note: For those looking for Part 2, visit the following link: “The COVID-19 Vaccine And The Case For Religious Exemption, Part 2”

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