20211105-LOC-CLERGYVACCINE-3A

Ven. Derek Scalia of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, shown behind him on Friday afternoon, was one of several local faith leaders who signed a letter urging people to be vaccinated against COVID-19. “I’ve been very clear, as well as many of the faith leaders on that letter, that we support all measures that stop the spread of this virus, and we recognize that the vaccine is our greatest gift in preventing further spread of this virus and preserving life,” he said.

As COVID-19 vaccine mandates become more prevalent among area and national employers, they’ve prompted some staff members to file for religious or medical exemptions.

But at least 12 local faith leaders are publicly urging people to get inoculated.

In a letter sent to The Sentinel and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript on Oct. 30, the leaders — of a variety of local Christian and Jewish faith communities — argue that the vaccine is a “gift” and that “choosing to be vaccinated is a way of demonstrating our concern and care for our neighbors.” (See letter on page A6.)

Two of those who signed it, Rev. Cynthia Bagley of the United Church of Christ in Keene and Ven. Derek Scalia of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, said they’ve been encouraging their congregations for months to get vaccinated.

But amid increased talk of religious exemptions and polarization nationwide around the shots, Scalia said the leaders felt they needed to extend their message beyond the pulpit.

“I’ve been very clear, as well as many of the faith leaders on that letter, that we support all measures that stop the spread of this virus, and we recognize that the vaccine is our greatest gift in preventing further spread of this virus and preserving life,” he said.

And while not speaking for others who signed the letter, both he and Bagley said that in most cases, they don’t agree with people applying for religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, saying this doesn’t reflect God’s commandment to love our neighbors.

There will likely be an uptick in these exemption requests in coming months, with all businesses nationwide with 100 or more employees required to show all their workers are fully vaccinated or that they will submit to weekly testing and mandatory masking by Jan. 4, according to the latest guidance Thursday from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“As clergy, we’re listening with different ears, and we’re hearing all this talk about, ‘Well, we’re going to have a vaccine mandate, unless, of course, you have a religious exemption.’ ... We kept saying, ‘What is that biblical exemption?’ because we can’t find it. The only one we can find is love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Bagley said.

The allowance for exemptions stems from the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

A religious belief doesn’t have to be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But, the request can’t be based solely on political or social ideas.

The request, additionally, does not require any sort of approval from a faith leader.

In turn, employers are put in the position of determining what constitutes true religious misgivings.

Many religious denominations have no objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. However, one of the biggest objections to vaccines, on religious grounds, is that those that used fetal cells in research, testing or production should not be put into people’s bodies.

Fetal cell lines developed decades ago in the laboratory were used to develop and test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, public health officials have said. This is a common practice in pharmaceutical research, such as with over-the-counter drugs, like Tylenol, ibuprofen and Tums.

Scalia argued that those applying for an exemption should be in a “really crucial point in one’s spiritual life.”

“When they are seeking something like this, to be exempt from a vaccine, how are their actions going to be loving to their neighbors?” he said. “... There’s an obligation they have as people of faith ... that it’s not about their personal self interest. That’s not the faith. The faith is about deep connection to one another, so much that we’re willing to sacrifice our own interests for the love of our neighbor.”

Bagley compared those applying for religious exemptions to the old story of the man whose house is flooding.

As the water rises, the story says, various people try to rescue him, but the man turns them all away, saying God will save him. When he reaches Heaven, the man asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” to which God replies, “Well, I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter.”

“I think this is a perfect parable for where we are. We’ve been sent three miracles in the form of vaccines ... and what are you saying? You’re still waiting for God to tap you individually on the shoulder and say, ‘Now I’m going to spare you?’ ” Bagley said. “It’s just craziness to me. The vaccine is the gift. What more do you want?”

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.