Health and Healthcare Systems

What role should religion play when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines?

A woman holding an Orthodox religious icon depicting Jesus Christ and a sticker reading "Stop mandatory vaccinations" attends a protest against mandatory mask wearing and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination, in Bucharest, Romania March 20, 2021. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. ROMANIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ROMANIA

Religion is playing a complicated role in efforts to vaccinate populations against COVID-19. Image: REUTERS

John Letzing
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  • Requests for religious exemptions are rising as COVID-19 vaccine mandates spread.
  • These are being made even as religious leaders support vaccination efforts.

An actor on an American soap opera recently sought to sidestep a COVID-19 vaccination mandate by doing something fairly common: requesting a religious exemption. Less common was the way his employment was killed off in a dramatic tunnel collapse after the request was denied.

Applications for religious exemptions are on the rise, amid new mandates designed to check the Omicron variant and contain the pandemic. New York City has unveiled plans for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all private employers, Greece has a mandate lined up for people over 60, and South Africa is considering its own versions.

Employers and schools may struggle to discern the requests for religious exemptions from mandates like these that are genuinely sincere – and puzzle over how to respect an applicant’s beliefs while also preventing the harm they may inflict on others. Some places simply decided this isn’t possible, and stopped making faith-based dispensations.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that getting vaccinated is the best way to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Most religious leaders are framing their messaging accordingly.

“It’s actually a mitzvah,” one rabbi told a reporter, referring to deeds performed to fulfil divine commandments.

Image: World Economic Forum

Yet, applications for religious exemptions continue to roll in. The US Air Force, for example, has received nearly 5,000 from active-duty airmen.

In search of a religious reason to avoid COVID-19 vaccine

The UN adopted an international right to freedom of religion more than a half-century ago. It also said that right can be limited when it’s necessary to protect public health.

One reason given for religious exemption requests is the use of fetal cells derived from terminated pregnancies to develop vaccines. But experts say this results from a misunderstanding of the actual science involved. They also note that truly avoiding anything developed using fetal cells would mean abstaining from aspirin and cold medication.

That didn’t stop one American pastor from pointing to the fetal cell issue as a reason to avoid vaccines. He died of COVID-19 in September.

A recent Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum suggests that 8 out 10 workers in the world back workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and only one in 10 say they'd try to find a way to avoid them. Many people take a dim view of citing faith to do so – one survey of Canadians found that 79% didn’t think there’s a legitimate religious reason to seek an exemption.

That hasn’t prevented the aggrieved from trying. About 5% of all employees of the state of Oregon in the US filed requests for exemptions to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and 90% of them were religious.

The history of religion and vaccination efforts

Thomas More offered one definition of faith when the English statesman described his role as “the King’s good servant and God’s first,” which didn't end well for him in 1535 (a firm named after More recently sued a medical school for denying religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccination mandate).

Maybe faith could mean avoiding animal products – a US court once ruled that a sincere adherence to veganism was grounds for a religious exemption to mandated flu vaccinations.

COVID-19 vaccine rates by country Image: World Economic Forum

While new wrinkles are constantly being added, like the Muslims in Indonesia who now reportedly believe (incorrectly) that most COVID-19 vaccines aren’t permitted under Islamic law, citing religion to avoid vaccination is a time-honored tradition.

An anti-vaccination movement that gripped Victorian England included religious opposition, and the objections of Christian Scientists to a 1966 New York state law mandating polio vaccinations led to it being the first of its kind in the US with a religious exemption.

Some conscientious vaccine objectors are banking on the idea that mandates will simply peter out. The American soap opera actor who lost his job, for example, played a character in a fictional world where death is often a temporary condition. He says he’d be happy to return, too, once the show’s workplace vaccine mandate is history.

More reading on religion and COVID-19 vaccine mandate

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • After petitioners including religious groups challenged a national workplace-vaccination mandate in the US last month, a court put a hold on it. This piece argues that the court got the underlying science “completely wrong.” (STAT)
  • Just as the world should’ve been getting ready to celebrate the first anniversary of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, Omicron came along to spoil the party; this piece traces the ups and downs of immunization efforts in the UK. (The Conversation)
  • Even before COVID-19, research in California showed the percentage of kindergarteners with parents claiming vaccines conflict with their religious beliefs was rising, according to this piece. (Harvard Kennedy School)
  • How the role of faith in vaccination is considered in a relatively religion-averse country like France – one debate there centred on whether Muslim women administering COVID-19 vaccine doses should be able to do so in headscarves, according to this piece. (The Atlantic)
  • When American men suddenly found religion after being drafted to fight in Viet Nam, it fell to local draft boards to assess requests for faith-based exemptions; this piece suggests recreating those boards for COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemption requests. (STAT)
  • Religion “provides tools for resisting information from secular sources,” according to this political scientist, who has found that faith has an independent negative effect on media trust. (LSE)
  • Beyond Omicron: one future path for the coronavirus, according to this analysis, would be to parallel respiratory syncytial virus by infecting most people during their first years of life and later – aided by vaccines – causing only mild symptoms. (Nature)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Vaccination, the Role of Religion and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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