Many Canadians have reached out to their church to sign a religious exemption form for vaccines. These requests have suddenly come to many churches and possibly organizations, and I know that pastors and churches are working through their responses.
As a contribution to that discussion, I want to name a number of occasions where I would not sign a religious exemption form. While this article won’t answer every question, I hope it helps you think through the question in your setting.
First, when there is no religious exemption possible
Provincial vaccine requirements may not allow religious exemptions. In which case, signing a form might simply set someone up for disappointment since there is no legal mechanism that the form supports. For example, in Ontario, there are only two valid exemptions from the vaccine passport system, and religious conscience is not one of them.
Obviously, someone could argue on the basis of charter freedoms that a vaccine passport system infringes upon rights and divides society in ways which gainsay our goals of a just society. But that discussion lies outside the specific question of signing a religious exemption form. If there is no avenue for its use, then signing it probably would not make sense.
Some locations such as schools may have a mandatory vaccine policy in which a religious exemption could be valid. In which case, you may consider signing it.
Second, when the request is not religious in nature
If you feel that signing a form makes sense, ask whether or not the issue is in fact a religious liberty question. It may be that someone desires to avoid a vaccine and the passport system on the basis of individual freedom. In such a case, it probably would be better to contact a local MPP/MLA or other appropriate person. Pastors and Christian leaders have obligated themselves to Christian ministry, and have not typically understood themselves to be primary leaders for civil liberty.
Missionaries regularly travel to countries that require a whole set of vaccinations. Short-term missionaries often get vaccines in order to visit countries. These regular patterns strongly suggest that vaccinations as such do not fall under regular patterns of religious freedom. Rather, they fall under the category of civil freedom.
Third, when the request comes from someone outside your congregation
A pastor recently mentioned that signing such forms could be a liability for Christians. As a pastor, signing a form for someone under your care may make sense. You are one of their spiritual leaders.
But signing the form for someone outside of your care means that you genuinely cannot know their reasons for the request. And you may find yourself signing forms for persons whose religious conscience you cannot verify. At the end of the day, a shepherd knows his sheep. He does not know the sheep of the world (that’s Jesus’s job as “the great shepherd of the sheep,” Heb 13:20).