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Where religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccines stand today

The latest developments involving faith-based objections to the COVID-19 vaccines include a legal battle on a soap opera set

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

I received some lovely news last week: My work on faith-based resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines was recognized by the Society for Features Journalism in its “feature series” category. However, in the midst of my celebrations, it dawned on me that I’ve hardly touched on the topic in the past few months.

Consider this newsletter an attempt to rectify that situation. Here are the latest updates at the intersection of religion and vaccination:

Two former soap opera crew members are suing for religious discrimination

Jim Wahl and Timothy Wahl lost their jobs on the set of “General Hospital” last year after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for religious reasons. Now, they’re suing ABC for wrongful termination and alleging that the company disrespected their religious beliefs, according to Variety.

“This is not the first suit to come from ‘General Hospital’ personnel about the vaccine mandate. In December 2021, cast member Ingo Rademacher also sued after having religious exemptions denied by the network. Rademacher played Jasper “Jax” Jacks on the show for nearly 25 years,” Variety reported.

Last year, as countries nationwide were implementing vaccination requirements, I wrote about the potential for legal disputes. Several health systems, airlines and schools have faced faith-related lawsuits over their policies. A recent Bloomberg Law article notes that employers are faring well in the courts.

A forthcoming vaccine option may appeal to religious objectors

The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, which is already in use outside the United States after receiving the World Health Organization’s stamp of approval, may soon be available to interested Americans. That’s notable since the vaccine, unlike options from Pfizer and Moderna, was developed without the use of “laboratory-grown cell lines descended from fetuses that were aborted decades ago,” The Associated Press reported earlier this month.

Currently available vaccines do not actually contain fetal cells. But the use of such cells in their development is often cited by religious objectors to explain their discomfort with the shots.

“The Novavax vaccine may be an acceptable option for some of the 27,000 service members who have sought religious exemptions from the mandatory vaccine. Military officials say many troops who refuse the shots cite certain COVID-19 vaccines’ remote connection to abortions,” the AP reported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently considering granting emergency use authorization to the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine.

The Supreme Court is considering a religious exemption case

As the current Supreme Court term winds town, court watchers are waiting to see whether the justices will take up Dr. A v. Hochul, a clash over a New York law that mandates COVID-19 vaccination for every health care worker in the state without a valid medical excuse.

“The mandate does not contain a religious exemption, but the state does allow health care employees to keep working if they are unvaccinated for medical reasons. A group of anonymous health care workers argue that the differential treatment of the two groups violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” SCOTUSblog reported.

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Term of the week: Fellowship of Friends

The Fellowship of Friends is a small religious sect based in northern California. Founded in 1970, the group, which has around 1,500 members worldwide, is best known for its love of fine arts and culture, according to The New York Times. “Inside the organization’s Northern California compound, called Apollo, the Fellowship staged operas, plays and ballets; ran a critically acclaimed winery; and collected art from across the world,” the article noted.

The Fellowship of Friends is at the center of a big controversy at Google, which has been sued over its alleged favoritism toward members of the group. “As many as 12 Fellowship members and close relatives worked for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces videos showcasing the company’s technologies. ... Many others staffed company events, working registration desks, taking photographs, playing music, providing massages and serving wine,” which had been purchased from a winery owned by a group member, The New York Times reported.

What I’m reading ...

Churches in the Bay Area in California have embraced an ambitious plan to help their homeless neighbors, according to The Mercury News. Several houses of worship in the area are turning their “parking lots, backyards and other bits of unused land into tiny homes,” the article said. Around 200 units are in the works right now.

McKay Coppins, a staff writer at The Atlantic and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a message for Hollywood: Stop denying Latter-day Saints the respect given to other people of faith. “What stood out most to me as I watched the finale (of “Under the Banner of Heaven”) was not its aggressively negative portrayal of Mormonism. It was the fact that no one involved in the show felt compelled to check the customary boxes Hollywood creators have been trained to check in this era of inclusiveness and representation,” he wrote.

As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, members of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Anaheim, California, this month to debate, among other things, the next steps in their effort to address the faith group’s sexual abuse crisis. The Associated Press was one of several outlets on the ground in Anaheim and I appreciated their wrap-up of some of the most notable moments of the conference.

Odds and ends

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday granting new protections to the LGBTQ community. The order, which comes as several states pass new restrictions on transgender health care and school programs on LGBTQ issues, bars conversion therapy nationwide and expands access to mental health resources, among other steps.

Father’s Day will be in the rearview mirror by the time you read this newsletter, but I urge you to still take the time to read this beautiful essay on fatherhood from the June issue of Deseret magazine.