By Zac Willette
“I do pray before I read these. I ask for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.” NACC Board Chair Carolanne B. Hauck shared that ritual as part of her contribution to a recent webinar titled “Religious Exemptions from COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates: What Is the Chaplain’s Role?” Bringing together legal, HR, and spiritual care expertise, the webinar was sponsored by ACPE, APC, NACC, Neshama, the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration, and hosted by the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.
The full video and complete transcript are available for free here. But what follows are a few key highlights, as well as links that healthcare chaplains may find helpful in supporting both institutional and individual responses to the mandate and requests for exemptions based on sincerely held religious beliefs:
- When we serve on review boards with colleagues from human resources, legal, and ethics, know that we are a member of a jury, not a plaintiff or defendant. We don’t have to build arguments; we can just focus on the evidence presented.
- Remember that religious exemptions are only about religious reasons – not medical exemptions, and not exemptions related to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those two categories have their own processes (and their own legal precedents).
- Further, religious exemptions are not about philosophical or political reasons – no matter how sincerely held those other reasons may be. This makes our job much easier, since religious reasons are connected to demonstrated religious belief, observance, or practice. However, some states have expanded exemptions to include non-religious reasons – so, as always, consult with your local leadership and legal team.
- Applicants for the exemption don’t have to be eloquent. They must simply make the case that they cannot receive a COVID vaccine because of their religious belief, observance, or practice. They are obliged to present evidence of their own religious belief, observance, or practice – but they are not required to be persuasive to others, only reflective of their own sincerity.
- Consistency in decisions prevents favoritism or discrimination. Exemptions are granted to individuals based on the information they provide. Membership in a particular faith community or tradition in itself is not enough to grant an exemption. Chaplains know well that no faith tradition is a monolith.
- When in doubt, we can ask applicants for more clarification and even for more documentation.
- Chaplains belong at the table for this. We can embrace (or facilitate!) invitations to participate as a way to help our interdisciplinary colleagues understand our expertise, our training, and our compassion.
Outside the very helpful webinar (including a lively Q&A), chaplains may find the following context and links useful:
- Associated Press reports on the high number of religious leaders (Greek Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Latter-day Saint, Orthodox Jew, United Methodist, and the Fiqh Council of Islamic Scholars) who decline to support religious exemptions for the vaccine. Even Christian Scientists are encouraged to “cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials.”
- However, there is not unanimous support among Catholic leaders. The Archbishop for Military Services in the U.S. issued a mid-October statement in support of service members who request the religious exemption for the COVID vaccine. And the Colorado Catholic Conference has produced a template for Catholics in their dioceses to use in requesting a religious exemption.
- Pope Francis calls getting vaccinated “an act of love” and described it as “a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”
- Latino Catholics have one of the highest vaccination rates of any religious group in the US.
Finally and most fundamentally, chaplains can – of course – provide compassionate spiritual care for all involved. We recognize that the people making the requests, the people reviewing the requests, and the people implementing the mandates in the first place are all carrying a high level of stress. What can we do as chaplains to reorient everyone to their resilience, and help them stay grounded in their values during a challenging time? We do that every day.
Zac M. Willette, BCC, is Innovator in Residence at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and previously the system director for spiritual care at Ascension Health.