Lutheran Thought

Why I Won’t Sign Your Religious Exemption Request

Due to the enduring COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Government has issued a vaccine mandate for those employed by the federal government or companies who receive Medicare/Medicaid dollars, who have government contracts, or employ 100+ persons. The mandate permits medical and religious exemption upon approval.

As an ordained minister, I have been approached to sign religious exemption requests. However, I cannot in good conscience, and thus will not, sign said documents.

One: Religious Exemption has a History.

Religious exemption is a legal protection for the free practice of religion within the United States of America. Our government recognizes that specific religious traditions object to certain medical practices and procedures. Within Christianity, objection to vaccination is quite limited to “Faith-Healing” traditions. The most prominent is Christian Science, formally The Church of Christ – Scientist.

Those who do not actively practice a historically exempt religious tradition should honestly discern their core objection to the COVID-19 vaccine and/or the mandate.

If the core objection is not genuinely religious, do not pursue religious exemption. This legal protection was not easily granted; and thus, should be respectfully reserved for said practitioners and not exploited by the general population.

Two. Request Signed by Your Religious Leader.

Those pursuing religious exemption should request a signature from their own religious leadership.

Those who practice a religious tradition historically granted exemption from vaccinations should contact their own religious leadership for said signature.

Those who do not practice said religious traditions should contact their own religious leadership to request said signature. I encourage the individual and religious leadership to discuss the Biblical and Theological teachings of their shared tradition, whether religious leadership grants or denies the request.

Those without a faith community and religious leadership may submit their request without the signature.

Three. Martin Luther and the Plague.

In 1527, the Bubonic Plague (or Black Death) was a present, terrifying threat in Germany. Martin Luther wrote Johann Hess, his friend and colleague, regarding “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”.

Luther wrote:

“Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

Luther also wrote:

“They distain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are… God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take care of the body so that we can live in good health.

If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes…

It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.”

And thus, Luther provided instruction that requires minimal discernment. If these instructions were updated for our time, it would encourage praying, sanitizing surfaces, social isolating, wearing masks, and arguably receiving the vaccine to decrease risk of infection for self and neighbors.

And further, Luther held contempt for the faithful who neglected said precautions. He held these faithful responsible for their own deaths (suicide) or the deaths (murder) of persons infected as a result of their negligence.

Four. The ELCA has Not Objected.

I am ordained within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA has released no official statement regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, the mandate, or religious exemption requests.

And yet, it may be discerned that the ELCA does not object to the COVID-19 vaccine. The ELCA and predecessor church bodies do not have a history of objecting to medical science, including practices, procedures, and vaccinations. Additionally, the ELCA generally embraces medical science, practices, and procedures as a gift from God for the health and well-being of humankind.

It may also be discerned that the ELCA does not encourage practitioners to pursue religious exemption. The ELCA and its predecessor church bodies do not have a history of utilizing said government protections.

And therefore, as an ordained minister within the ELCA, I am expected to act in accordance with the confessional documents, denominational writings/teachings, and social statements which I discern neither objects to the COVID-19 vaccine nor supports religious exemption from the mandate.

Five. The Commandments (the “Law”)

The foundation of the moral and ethical law, or teaching, within Christianity universally is the Ten Commandments.

The fourth commandment is to honor our parents, who represent earthly authority entrusted to provide for the common good of the home. Similarly, the government is an earthly authority entrusted to provide for the common good of the nation. Accordingly, the government has established negative consequences for conduct that does not promote good order or the common good, such as traffic violations and driving under the influence (DUI) (see Romans 13:1-7). And thus, the government has issued the mandate to strongly encourage persons to be vaccinated for the health and common good of our citizens through the means of unfavorable consequences.

The fifth commandment is to not commit murder, which represents not physical death alone but harm committed against another in mind, body, or soul through our thoughts, words, and deeds. And thus, potentially exposing one to COVID-19 and its possible complications without utilizing all available precautions (including the vaccine) risks harm to our neighbors, their loved ones, and the entirety of our communities.

In addition, the Apostle Paul wrote that love is the fulfillment of the law for love does no wrong to a neighbor (Romans 13: 8-10). Genuine love is sacrificial as it serves, protects, and places the needs of another above and beyond our own desires. Similarly, vaccinations serve the common good through positive public health and protect the vulnerable at increased risk of complications despite the often mild after effect of the vaccine. And thus, vaccination is an act of love and again love is the fulfillment of the “law”.

Six. Support of Vaccination

I have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect me, loved ones, and the wider community against transmission, mutations, and the potential complications from the virus.

I may disagree with those resistant to the COVID-19 vaccination, but disagreement does not equal hate.

Seven. COVID-19 is Serious and Personal.

COVID-19 is a highly-transmittable, easily mutated virus whose far-reach can be limited with preventive measures. Preventive measures including sanitizing surfaces, socially isolating, wearing masks, and receiving the vaccine.

I have witnessed COVID-19 positive persons who were either asymptomatic or experienced mild flu-like symptoms and congestion.

I have witnessed COVID-19 positive persons who were hospitalized due to complications and have now fully recovered.

I have witnessed COVID-19 positive persons who were hospitalized due to complications and were admitted to hospice services for respiratory failure.

I have witnessed a COVID-19 positive 30 year-old person without pre-existing conditions and no contributing risk factors, whose complications resulted in permanent lung damage similar to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

I have witnessed and am continuing to grieve the premature death of a loved one due to COVID-19 complications.

Summary:

I am mindful of the history of religious exemption within the United States of America and chose to respect it.

I am firmly grounded within the Lutheran tradition and chose act in accordance with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

I am firmly grounded within Scripture and bound by conscience.

And thus, I cannot and will not sign a request for Religious Exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine.

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