The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many deaths and much suffering. It has also created a number of acute challenges for churches, one of which is how to think about religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. These requirements are sometimes imposed by employers, and sometimes by government officials. When individuals seek a religious exemption from these requirements, they may ask for an endorsement of that exemption.
This analysis considers whether individual religious exemptions should be endorsed in churches within the magisterial Protestant traditions (e.g., Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian). It does not consider whether it is advisable for employers or government officials to adopt COVID-19 vaccine requirements, nor does it consider what would be an optimal exemption policy, nor does it assess the legal basis for any particular vaccine requirement. Instead, this analysis assumes a duly adopted COVID-19 vaccine requirement that allows religious exemptions. The question is whether a religious exemption should be endorsed by churches, clergy, and lay leaders in the magisterial Protestant traditions. Our answer is no.
Those who seek a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement generally do so on one of three grounds. The first is that the vaccines are immoral, because they purportedly rely on a cell line (HEK 293) that can be traced back to an aborted fetus almost 50 years ago. The second is that even if the vaccines themselves are not immoral, government officials and employers who require them have no right to override the conscience of an individual Christian. The third is that, because of the religious duty to avoid risks to one’s own life and health, a Christian with doubts about the safety or effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine has a religious basis for refusing it. These will be called (1) the moral objection, (2) the conscience objection, and (3) the risk objection.
The Moral Objection
1. The moral objection to the COVID-19 vaccines is unsound. Even if it is assumed that the factual premise is correct (i.e., that the cell line in question came from an aborted fetus — a premise that is likely but not certain), the objection is unsound for three reasons.
a. First, it is not the case that an invention, idea, product, cell line, building, family, association, business, private fortune, nation, or government is forever tainted because there was some sin — whether theft, lying, adultery, murder, or otherwise — involved in its generation. Those who do not participate in an act are not ordinarily complicit in it, and they are not made complicit merely because they have a downstream contact that may be beneficial.
i. The same distinction between an initial immoral act and downstream beneficial consequences is made in other cases. For example, when an adult human being is the target of a murder-for-hire plot, and he is shot and then dies en route to the hospital, and the hospital acts speedily to save one of his organs for transplantation; a patient who receives the organ transplant does not thereby become an accomplice to murder. The fact that the organ donor was murdered does not make it any less moral for the patient to receive the organ transplant.
ii. Any moral objection would need to be narrower: it would be that benefiting from the sinful act could incentivize the commission of more such acts. That is, that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine developed from a cell line that can be traced to the killing of a fetus would incentivize the killing of more fetuses, or receiving an organ transplant that can be traced to the killing of an adult would incentivize the killing of more adults. If there were a substantial incentive effect, the moral course might be to refrain from receiving a benefit. But use of a cell line that has been in existence for nearly fifty years, even if it could be traced back to an aborted fetus, does not incentivize abortions today.
b. Second, although weighing of consequences cannot justify the commission of a sinful act, it is relevant for deciding whether to make use of the results of a sinful act. It is therefore relevant for assessing the moral objection that the COVID-19 vaccines, like other vaccines, are used to save many lives.
c. Third, even if the moral objection were sound (which it is not for the reasons already offered), it would at most give rise only to an objection to taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when a person could instead take the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine available in the United States that made use of the disputed cell line in its production. For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, this cell line was used for testing, but not for production. The same cell line has been used for testing of many of the most widely used medical treatments in the United States, including Tylenol. To object on moral grounds to all COVID-19 vaccines would require one also to object on moral grounds to a vast swathe of widely used medical treatments.
For these reasons, there is no valid moral basis for a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
The Conscience Objection
2. The conscience objection to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement is also unsound. Because there is not a valid moral objection, the conscience objection has to be that an individual Christian’s conscience — even when ill-formed and wrong in its moral judgment — cannot be overridden by human authorities. That is an untenable position. As Christians, we are called to obey the civil authorities (Romans 13), and barring a conflict with a divine commandment, we are to “submit [our]selves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). It is true that Christians have a wide latitude in holding political commitments and making political arguments, including ones that emphasize individual liberty to be free from government coercion. But those arguments about individual liberty (like the countering arguments that emphasize communal responsibility) derive from ideas about politics, prudence, and civil rights and duties more generally. They are arguments about the role of government, not about the free exercise of religion. Religious freedom is an exceedingly important value, and it is a constitutional right recognized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But religious freedom is distorted — and in the long run can be imperiled —when it is stretched to cover claims of individual liberty that do not have a religious basis.
a. Note that this is not an instance where the stronger brother is supposed to bear with the weaker brother’s conscience (Romans 14), for two reasons. First, here the mistaken judgment of conscience is directly opposed by the biblical requirement of obedience to civil authority. A weaker brother’s conscience may allow him not to do something that he has moral freedom to do, but it does not allow him to refuse to follow a biblical command. Second, the mistaken judgment of conscience in this instance can put other people directly at risk of death or grave physical injury. It is not like the paradigm case in Romans 14, where the weaker brother’s conscience does not directly endanger anyone else.
b. Some parts of the universal church (e.g., Baptists) prioritize individual conscience over ecclesial authority. Even they, however, do not prioritize mistaken conscience over the lawful commands of government. Educating one’s conscience, especially in a storm of misinformation and political distrust, can be a daunting task. The churches of the magisterial Reformation provide clear direction in the case of potential conflict between individual conscience and the commands of human authorities: we should obey human authority whenever it does not conflict with a divine commandment. (For examples, see the discussion of the Fourth Commandment in Luther’s Large Catechism, Article 16 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Homily of Obedience in the First Book of Homilies, and Chapter 20.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.) Christian claimants can point to no divine command against the COVID-19 vaccine.
For these reasons, there is no valid basis in conscience for a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
The Risk Objection
3. The risk objection is also unsound. The objection is based on two premises: there is a Christian duty to protect life and health, and a Christian may think that the COVID-19 vaccines pose a threat to life and health (or at least, for some lower-risk persons, that the vaccines do not protect life and health). From these premises the conclusion is drawn that Christians who think a COVID-19 vaccine does pose such a threat have a religious basis for not receiving it, in order to protect their life and health. This objection is unsound for at least two reasons.
a. First, it relies on a mistaken judgment about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that people who are unvaccinated are much more likely to die of COVID-19, and the absence of widespread negative effects can be clearly seen by those who are in communities with high vaccination rates.
b. Second, even if it is conceded for the sake of argument that there are grounds for doubting the safety or effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, this premise still provides no basis for a religious exemption. That is so because of two connected lines of reasoning:
i. There is no stopping point for this argument. If a general duty to protect life and health means that every decision to protect life and health is a matter of religious obligation, then there is no reason to stop there. The holy Scriptures do not single out physical health as especially important over other goods. There are many good things for our bodies and for our souls, for our minds and for our emotions, things such as friendship, advice, reputation, wealth, knowledge, clothing, housing, food, wine, and, above all these, virtue. If we are to preserve and pursue our good and our neighbor’s, as we are, then it cannot be that we try only to protect health and safety. We are to seek all aspects of our flourishing and, especially, of our neighbor’s flourishing. The risk objection therefore becomes an argument that proves too much. It would transform essentially every decision that every Christian makes — since all decisions can be traced to the pursuit of some good — into decisions that are a matter of religious obligation that could be the basis of a religious exemption.
ii. Moreover, the risk objection, like the conscience objection, neglects the command to submit to civil authorities. To be sure, there is a kernel of truth in the risk objection. As noted in the preceding paragraph, the risk objection could lead to thinking that every decision we make related to our own flourishing or that of our neighbors’ is imbued with the quality of being religious. And that is correct. It is a commonplace that everything can and should be done with a religious motivation (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:31; George Herbert, “The Elixir”). And yet within the magisterial Protestant traditionsm it has never been thought that merely doing something with a religious motivation and understanding is enough to remove it from the domain of subjects that can be regulated by human authorities. Again, barring a conflict with a divine commandment, we are to “submit [our]selves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). There is no exception simply because a Christian happens to think that some other ordinance would be a better way of achieving health or any other human good. It is not “submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, unless you disagree with the calculation of the costs and benefits.”
c. In some cases there is a third problem with the risk objection: it would be inconsistent for a person to advance that objection and yet fail to take every step possible to reduce the risk of transmission of diseases, including COVID-19.
For these reasons, an objection based on perceived risk does not offer a valid basis for a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
Religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements should not be endorsed by churches, clergy, and lay leaders within the magisterial Reformation traditions (e.g., Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian).
(simultaneously published at the Canopy Forum)