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Why a Tulsa pastor is offering vaccine exemptions in exchange for church membership

One scholar says the pastor, who is running for the U.S. Senate, isn’t selling exemptions but rather a ‘bogus idea’ since a written exemption isn’t legally necessary

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

A pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is offering to sign a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who joins his church online, The Washington Post reported today.

The Rev. Jackson Lahmeyer, and his wife, Kendra, lead Sheridan Church in Tulsa. While the religious exemption form is available for download from his church’s website, it’s also posted on the website of his political campaign — not only is the Rev. Lahmeyer a pastor, he’s running for the U.S. Senate.

In order to get the religious exemption form signed, however, one must become an online member of Sheridan Church, which necessitates streaming the church’s virtual services and donating at least $1.

The Rev. Lahmeyer told The Washington Post that the form has been downloaded by 30,000 people in recent days.

Critics like Right Wing Watch — a project of the nongovernmental organization People for the American Way — say the pastor’s actions amount to selling religious exemptions to the coronavirus vaccine.

“MAGA pastor Jackson Lahmeyer is now essentially selling religious exemptions, telling anyone who doesn’t want to take a COVID vaccine to donate to his church in order to become an ‘online member,’” Right Wing Watch said on its Facebook page.

But observers point out that, in most cases, a signed form isn’t actually necessary for those who want a religious exemption from vaccine mandates.

While some institutions with vaccine mandates might ask those who seek religion exemption for a signature from a religious leader, Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center’s Freedom Forum Institute told the Post that simply stating that the vaccine violates one’s religious beliefs should suffice. Otherwise, institutions could end up infringing on constitutional rights.

The Rev. Lahmeyer is “not really selling a religious exemption,” Haynes told The Washington Post. “He’s selling a bogus idea that you need one.”

Numerous religious leaders across the country are offering religious exemption forms or letters to people who aren’t willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Last month, The Los Angeles Times reported that Sacramento-area megachurch leader the Rev. Greg Fairrington was offering letters of religious exemption.

And some pastors are offering signed religious exemptions in exchange for money. Last week, Quartz reported that the Rev. Anita Martir Rivera, a Texas-based evangelist, “offers exemption letters to anyone — for a suggested ‘donation’ starting at $25.”

Research has found that religious leaders and houses of worship can play a key role in whether or not populations get vaccinated against COVID-19 and in public health more generally.

“Pastors and other religious leaders are very powerful influencers in their communities,” Kathryn Pitkin Derose, a senior policy researcher at Rand who specializes in religious institutes and public health, told the Deseret News in December.

Similarly, a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that faith-based outreach can persuade even those who are not affiliated with any religious institutions to get vaccinated.

Religious leaders offering documentation for a religious exemption to the COVID vaccine comes at a time when public support is falling for such exemptions, the Deseret News reported.

In March, 56% of U.S. adults favored offering exemptions to religious objectors. By June, that figure had dropped four percentage points to 52%, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

In general, Americans are skeptical of those who say vaccine mandates, like the one proposed this month by President Joe Biden that will affect private employers with more than 100 workers, violate their religious freedom.

Only one-quarter of U.S. adults (26%) sided with religious objectors in a recent survey that laid out a hypothetical scenario involving an unvaccinated kid being denied enrollment at a public school.

Still, courts are friendly to religious exemptions in how they judge the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections. In recent months, a variety of states, schools and employers that have tried to limit or remove exemptions from vaccine mandates wound up in court.