John Longhurst’s provocatively titled column Religious leaders should make it clear faith is not a reason to not get vaccinated was published by the Winnipeg Free Press in the Saturday paper on August 28, 2021. Of course, the title is only provocative if you happen to hold a religious belief that objects to getting the jab x2 (or now for some, x3), or if you have a concern for the protection of human rights in Canada.
I was already considering a brief write-up on the topic following enquiries from Christian leaders in the pro-vax, anti-vax, and vaccine hesitant camps following an announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau a couple of days before he called the current federal election, and his subsequent comments on the subject. So, here it is.
On Thursday, August 5 a Nanos poll reported that a majority of Canadians support mandatory vaccines. The same day, Mr. Trudeau shifted from his position vaccines would not be mandatory for any Canadian to a statement that he was considering it for federal workplaces. The next day, Mr. Trudeau announced mandatory vaccination would be required for federal government employees, federal workplaces, and travel by plane, train or ferry. Sunday he called an election, and has since publicly advised there will be unspecified consequences for the unvaccinated.
There has been a resultant flurry of banks, airlines, and other businesses to implement mandatory vaccine policies. Four provinces have announced vaccine passports, identifying provincial businesses that will have passport restrictions.
The words of a prime minister spark action, supportive and un.
Protesters are now dogging the prime minister’s campaign, some (too) aggressively. The prime minister is accusing his primary opponent of not being tough on vaccines. And, church leaders are praying about how to handle the passports at church building entrances―British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec having exempted places of worship from mandatory passport verification requirements.
Pastors, priests and elders are also wrestling with requests for advice from unvaccinated parishioners who find themselves unexpectedly confronted with mandatory vaccine policies in their workplace.
Although Mr. Longhurst seems convinced that religious beliefs are not a reason to be exempted from vaccination, it’s not quite that simple. Sacred texts allow for differing conclusions on the point.
Longhurst is correct that some Muslim leaders have said the vaccine is acceptable because it contains no pork products. Similarly, some Hindu leaders have said there are no bovine materials. For Roman Catholics, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement endorsing papal acceptance of the vaccines approved by relevant health authorities which present no choice but a jab made with the help of foetal cells several generations removed.
Longhurst, however, misses the Canadian constitutional and legal context relevant to addressing his question as to why religious belief would be a valid reason, alongside medical reasons, for declining vaccination and keeping your job.
Section 2 of the Charter recognizes that “everyone has the following fundamental freedoms,” including: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, belief, and opinion.
On the question of conscience, The Moving Goalposts of COVID Response by several levels of government from ‘stay home for two weeks to flatten the curve’ to ‘70% fully vaccinated will provide herd immunity’ to ‘mandatory vaccines and vaccine passports’ may well be enough to justify anyone being conscientiously vaccine hesitant. The briefings by government scientists and ministers might also fuel hesitant thoughts, beliefs, and opinions about the ability to trust government and the new requirement to be vaccinated in order to enjoy some everyday amenities of pre-pandemic life.
When considering freedom of religion, the Supreme Court of Canada has determined that: 1) your personal freedom of religion is guaranteed based on your sincerely held religious beliefs (i.e. it doesn’t matter if someone like a priest, religion professor, or a newspaper’s religion columnist disagrees with your understanding) and 2) the personal practices connected with your beliefs are deemed to be an expression of your religious freedom. The leading cases on these points are 2004’s Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem and 2006’s Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys.
It's reasonable to advance religious reasons as objection if you belong to a religious community that has determined that declining the vaccines is a religious obligation, something Longhurst acknowledges in reference to “some conservative Christian Reformed groups,” or because as an individual you have drawn a conclusion based on your own sincerely held religious beliefs. For example:
Regardless of papal or other religious authorities’ acceptance, you may object to receiving one of the publicly available vaccines because the manufacturers have noted they were developed using human cell strains from decades old foetal tissue obtained from aborted fetuses. Objection to abortion is common in several religions.
Your religion might include a belief in dreams and visions, as Christianity does. For example, on one occasion Joseph was visited by an angel in a dream and told not to divorce Mary, Matthew 1, and on another he was told to take his family, Mary and Jesus, and flee to Egypt, Matthew 2). You might personally have had a dream or vision that informed your decision to receive or not receive the vaccine. I know several people who maintain a journal, including a record of dreams, and one who shared with me he had such a dream. It’s entirely possible to have a dream that cautions against getting the jab, even to have made a record of it.
In addition to Charter requirements for government, provincial human rights legislation prohibits discrimination in employment based on medical or religious reasons.
Reasonable accommodation for these objections can be made with available rapid tests and/or use of covid questionnaires. This is the position that was taken in a letter to the public service posted on the Government of Canada website by Christine Donoghue, Chief Human Resources Officer of Canada, following the prime minister’s announcement on August 6. A few days later, the letter was ordered removed. As of writing, there is no official Government of Canada policy; only public statements by the prime minister. Donoghue’s position is the same taken by Chris Aylward, National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and that presented by Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada; the position criticized by candidate Trudeau.
Churches are in a similar situation to private businesses.
If the provincial government ordered places of worship to use vaccine certification or other measures for health and safety reasons, Scripture counsels those measures be implemented in churches unless they prohibit the preaching of the gospel.
But if, as in BC, MB, ON, and QC, it is left up to places of worship to set their own standards, we can reasonably anticipate there will be differences of opinion on how best to comply with health requirements and whether to accommodate the unvaccinated or require vaccination confirmation.
And what do you do with those who have produced the anti-bodies because they’ve had covid-19? Scientists say no jab required. Governments say, no passport without the double dose.
There is no chapter and verse on vaccines or whether vaccine passports should be checked at the entrance to a place of worship. Some will proclaim reliance on God as healer, and open the doors to all. Others will preach love for neighbour, and establish policy that verifies passports to reduce risk.
Regardless of a congregation or denomination’s policy, Christians can be certain of three commandment to love we find in Scripture. Love God. Love one another. Love our neighbours. The second of these may require greater attention when we inevitably disagree on vaccine or passport policy.
John Longhurst is right, it’s important what preachers preach. It’s also important what people believe, and how we demonstrate our belief in practice.
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