Religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandate: Here’s what we know, what we don’t

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With the final deadlines for federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates looming, many who haven’t yet received the jab are scrambling to take their shot, preparing to face consequences, or seeking an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

The new policies, set to be implemented at the end of October, come months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to impose new proof of vaccination requirements across all federally regulated industries – including a mandate for domestic travellers not specific to federal employees.

While some medical exemptions simply include allergies to the vaccines themselves, the lines are somewhat blurry when it comes to religious conditions.

Here’s a look at religious exemptions for vaccination — who is eligible, how a person can get such an exemption and if it could potentially be used to avoid COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Canada.

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What are religious exemptions to getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

A religious exemption to getting a COVID-19 vaccine is the argument that a person’s own religion or beliefs exclude them from having to get the shot.

Exemptions, in this case, could involve an outright ban on getting vaccines, or any sort of medical or invasive treatment done to one’s body. In other cases, some religions prohibit the use of certain byproducts like beef, pork or stem cells in some medical treatments – though none of those ingredients are proven to be included in any of the COVID-19 vaccines.

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While the federal government and several provincial human rights commissions have promised that exemptions would be given out, public health experts, ethicists and even Prime Minister Trudeau have said they would be few and far between.

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In a statement to Global News, the prime minister’s office said there would only be “very limited exceptions” to the vaccine mandate for travellers, in particular, to address “the realities of remote, fly-in communities; emergency travel; and exceptional medical reasons.”

Accommodations, as stipulated under the Canadian Human Rights Act, would be made for people who can’t get the vaccine, though the prime minister himself promised that having a personal belief that vaccines are bad would not work in order to get an exemption.

As for federal employees, an earlier statement from Canadian Treasury Board said that any federal employees unable “to be fully vaccinated based on a certified medical contraindication, religion, or another prohibited ground of discrimination as defined under the Canadian Human Rights Act may request accommodation.”

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“With respect to accommodation for religion, managers should request an affidavit sworn by the employee before a commissioner for taking affidavits, containing detailed information about the sincerely held religious belief that prohibits full vaccination,” read the statement.

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The Treasury Board outlined strict penalties for swearing a false affidavit however and added that employees that do so could be fired.

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“Managers can request additional information and supporting documentation, as may be appropriate,” the statement continued.

Regarding vaccine mandates on a provincial level, some governments have also further addressed the topic of religious exemptions.

Quebec recently announced that it would not be taking religious exemptions as a reason for health-care workers not to get the jab by Oct. 15. B.C., on the other hand, announced outright that there would be no exemptions whatsoever to its vaccine passport system.

Come Oct. 30, anyone aged 12 or older wanting to board a plane or train in Canada would have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while those in the core public service, such as air travel and rail employees, would need to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 29.

Anyone failing to attest that they’ve been vaccinated could be placed on administrative leave, the federal government warned. Those giving a false attestation could face disciplinary actions — including being fired.

And while some federal workers not yet vaccinated rush to get their mandated jab, exemptions could be made in very special cases – mostly under the argument of medical or religious reasons.

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Which religions could exempt a person from getting a vaccine?

A recent count done by Vanderbilt University’s Medical Center revealed that only a handful of the hundreds of religions actually ban vaccinations for their followers.

None of those religions, which are comprised of small subsets of the Christian church including the Dutch Reformed Church, Church of the First Born and the Faith Assembly, have a significant following in Canada compared to larger, more mainstream denominations or faiths.

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And while the number of religions that could forbid their followers from getting their vaccine in Canada may seem small, several experts point to it as a potential excuse for those not wanting to get the vaccine.

According to Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, the topic of religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccines is both an interesting and difficult one.

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“I think anyone can come up with any excuse for wanting an exception, and religion is a particularly good reason to invoke as it is covered in human rights codes and charter of rights, and can also be quite nebulous,” wrote Muhajarine in an email.

“What I would look for is whether any religious/faith leaders have made statements that support a claim for exemption on religious grounds. What religion are we talking about here.”

Muhajarine pointed to the United Arab Emirates as an example, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world but is also a majority Muslim population.

“The world is a big place with people from a lot of different religions and beliefs who have got vaccines,” he wrote.

In September, the Canadian Council of Imams “strongly recommended” its Muslim followers receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while Pope Francis urged all Catholic followers to get their COVID-19 shots back in August.

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Vanderbilt University’s review of religion and religious doctrine regarding vaccination also stated that followers of Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism widely accept vaccination for the most part.

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From an ethical perspective, University of Manitoba philosophy professor Neil McArthur said there were two points that stuck out to him regarding religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccinations.

The first was whether it was ethical for the government to impose vaccine mandates given that people have a legitimate objection to them, and the second was whether it was ethical for people to even claim a religious exemption to the jab in the first place.

According to McArthur, the government was “more than justified” in imposing such mandates which were based on public health urgings, though it would also be hard for them not to accommodate religious exemptions with Canada being a liberal democracy that has its own charter of rights and freedoms.

“I think one of the reasons we have these kinds of religious objections is to protect against religious discrimination. There is a fear that it may be public policies that target people or religion or try to suppress certain kinds of religion — and I think that’s clearly not the case here,” said McArthur.

As for whether the majority of people trying to claim a religious exemption to the vaccine actually held “sincere” religious objections to it, McArthur was sceptical.

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While he believed that the government should be willing to grant objections to cases that can be fairly and sincerely justified, he predicts that the “vast majority” of people claiming exemptions aren’t actually going to be sincere.

“(If) they’re just hiding behind religion,” he said, “I think on an individual level, that’s not ethically defensible. I don’t think ethically those people should be doing that.”

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