Should America’s churches enforce vaccine mandates?

For some houses of worship, mask mandates aren’t enough. Across the country, churches and synagogues are requiring clergy, staff and, in some cases, congregants to provide proof of vaccination

Exemptions — sometimes offered at a price — have dominated headlines about how religion is responding to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. But these stories have eclipsed how other houses of worship are taking the opposite approach: requiring the faithful to get a shot. 

Nationwide, a number of churches and synagogues are implementing vaccine mandates. Some are requiring not just clergy and staff to get vaccinated but even congregants. Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco, California, is enforcing such an all encompassing mandate — complete with ushers who will politely turn away those without proof of vaccination. 

“It’s not customary to check vaccinations as people come into church,” the Very Rev. Malcolm Young, dean of Grace Cathedral, acknowledged. “We’re choosing health over accepted traditions.”  

During a Sept. 12 sermon, the Rev. Young pointed out that every two days COVID-19 claims more lives than the number of those who were killed on 9/11. “Churches,” he continued, “have to take stronger positions with regard to vaccination.” 

Houses of worship, he told the Deseret News, “need to step up in setting an example and addressing this as a societal problem.” 

The Rev. Young called on religious leaders to take a firm pro-vaccination stand. “The main thing I want to impress on other clergy is how important it is to take action. We’re all complicit,” he said. “The scientists did an extraordinary job of using their God-given intellect to make these vaccines and now we need to be working to make sure we’re all getting vaccinated.” 

The reverend explained that several months ago he and others at Grace Cathedral began discussing vaccine mandates for church employees. But after hearing from many congregants who said they wouldn’t feel comfortable attending church alongside unvaccinated worshippers, the decision was made to broaden the mandate to anyone who wanted to attend services. 

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“What we were doing before (the mandate) is we were de facto not letting people in because they were concerned about their health or because they were under the age of 12,” the Rev. Young said. “You have to choose: are you going to leave out people who have compromised health or who are children or are you going to cater to the people who are propagating conspiracy theories?”

He added, however, that not all church members were pleased with the decision. “It’s a large enough congregation that we have a few people who don’t agree with it,” he said. 

However, the reverend said the sharpest criticism has come not from members of his own flock but, rather, from a right-wing radio host in the United Kingdom. “If you’re going to have people be upset with you, it’s good to have them far away,” he joked.  

At the outset, enforcing the vaccine mandate was challenging, in part because the facility held events that were attended by hundreds of people. Initially, they relied on church staff and volunteers to check vaccination cards. Then they had to hire people to help. 

So Grace Cathedral implemented a “Grace Pass,” an online form that requires users to upload a photo of the vaccination record. Now, those who have a Grace Pass whiz through the line — the Rev. Young likened it to the TSA pre-check line at the airport — leaving most of the ushers free to deal only with visitors who don’t attend the church on a regular basis. 

The resources necessary to enforce vaccine mandates have been a factor that has stopped other religious institutions from implementing such requirements. 

One of the questions the Union for Reform Judaism is asking congregations to consider goes deeper than resources, “Can I enforce this policy?” said Amy Asin, Union for Reform Judaism vice president and director of Strengthening Congregations. 

“What’s going to happen if I have a vaccine mandate and someone walks up and doesn’t have a vaccine card? Who’s going to stand at the door? It’s charged politically and this is somewhere people are going for comfort — you don’t want to keep them out,” she said. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instituted a mask mandate for temples this week. However, President Russell M. Nelson has urged members to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t implemented vaccine mandates but Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to get vaccinated, remarking that doing so is “an act of love.”

Some religious leaders have felt that they don’t need to implement a vaccine mandate because most of their congregation is vaccinated. 

Asin estimated that, nationwide, about two-thirds of congregations had some vaccine guidance — either requiring or encouraging vaccination — for in-person Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in September. But she also acknowledged that because Jewish Americans have the highest vaccination acceptance rates of any religious group in the country, whether mandated or not, Jews are likely to be vaccinated

While Boston’s Old South Church — a United Church of Christ congregation — has made COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for clergy and staff, they stopped short of expanding the vaccine mandate to worshippers for several reasons. 

“First, we believe our congregation, our members, are highly vaccinated,” the Rev. Nancy Taylor said. “Second, the pandemic has taken a toll on our volunteer ushers. … We are in the process of recruiting and training up new ushers, but our bench is depleted. Third, we have visitors every Sunday — tourists, the curious, the unhoused — and we don’t want to put our volunteer ushers in the position of gatekeepers. We have read too many stories about anti-vaxxers assaulting those who ask to see proof of vaccinations.”  

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In Maine, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Brown, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, has declared a vaccine mandate for clergy and diocese staff, explaining that he stopped there because his authority does not extend to lay people.

He added, however, that two of the churches he oversees are requiring worshippers to show evidence of vaccination. 

Bishop Brown remarked that every congregation has to weigh the decision as to whether or not to implement a vaccine mandate and that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. In some places, articulating a mandate might run counter to how that church is ministering, particularly if they’re “in dialogue with Christian conservatives,” he said, a group that generally has lower vaccination rates, though that seems to be changing.

He also said that churches have to weigh how they want to enforce vaccine mandates. Do they want to require proof of vaccination or do they want to use an honor system? “There’s something about trust,” he reflected. 

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