Battle Creek

Religious leaders in Calhoun County help clarify ambiguity around 'religious exemption' for vaccines

Editor's note: This story is part of a Southwest Michigan Second Wave series exploring issues surrounding COVID-19 in Calhoun county.

It’s easy to be confused about religious exemptions right now. The COVID-19 vaccine and safety mandates have led to “exemption” becoming a buzzword.

What was already a shifting concept — one that requires case-by-case examination because it’s so hard to pin down — is now more perplexing because of the spread of misinformation.

Pope Francis recently addressed this in a speech to ambassadors. “Frequently people let themselves be influenced by the ideology of the moment, often bolstered by baseless information or poorly documented facts.”

While it is up to the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (EEOC) to define “religious exemption,” religious leaders are the ones who have to bridge the gap of understanding.

Bishop Paul Bradley of the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo, wearing protective gear, processes into St. Augustine Cathedral last year.Local Christian leaders fielded a sharp increase in questions about exemptions last year. Back in August, Bishop Paul Bradley of the Diocese of Kalamazoo sent out a letter to parishioners, because inquiries into exemption referrals “has given rise to confusion” and the Bishop says it was important to make clarifications. 

For Pastor James Sunnock of Victory Life Church, some of those requests for exemptions came from people who were not even members of his church. 

As Sunnock says: “In school, they didn’t have a class on worldwide pandemics.”

Though they are at the center of these inquiries, the irony is a place of worship really is third in line as part of the bureaucratic process people go through to receive an exemption.

Religious exemptions are monitored by the EOCC and it is up to employers to make the final decision. They have the right to do an investigation into whether the request for an exemption from the COVID vaccine is “sincere.”

“If an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information,” according to the EOCC rules.

Employers also have to weigh whether the accommodation required for an unvaccinated staff member is going to be an “undue hardship.” With disruption everywhere, undue hardship can be more than a price tag.

James Sunnock, Lead Pastor at Victory Life Church in Battle Creek. He says when approached by a member of their congregation about providing a letter to support a vaccine exemption, he and his staff turn it into a discussion.“The Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a ‘de minimis,’ or a minimal, cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business – including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public,” according to the EOCC website.

If an employee wants to start the process of applying for an exemption, a letter from his or her religious leader can help.

And that’s where the exemption goes from a buzzword to a moral discussion.

Working for the common good

For the Catholic Church, health care is a moral obligation with roots in the idea that one should take care of their own health as part of their concern for the common good.

Longtime Battle Creekers may remember Trinity Hospital, part of a Catholic network until the hospital was bought by Bronson. According to Victoria Cessna, executive director of communications and public affairs for the Diocese of Kalamazoo, hospital leadership goes all the way back to when America was still known as the New World.

As Catholics, they are taught to care for the well-being of themselves and others.

Bishop Bradley encourages his parishes in nine different counties, including Calhoun, to listen to the health experts.

“We try to keep our ears to the ground, to know what are the latest things that the CDC are saying or what the governor is saying or what the local health department is saying,” Bradley says.

While that covers practicalities, Bishop Bradley is the one to reinforce moral teachings to his parishioners. 

“They have a moral obligation to practice their faith,” Bishop says. “They have a moral obligation to take care of themselves. They have a moral obligation to follow the commandments and to abide by that in the teaching of Jesus, of course, in the ways that we live our lives.”

It also means having “a deep awareness and concern for the common good.”

For that reason, the Catholic Church has sanctioned vaccines. According to Bradley’s August letter, that means it is morally acceptable for parishioners to get the vaccine or they can take other measures to prevent the COVID-19 spread — such as regular testing, masking, and social distancing.

No clergy, parishes, or institutions in the Diocese will provide a letter or statement to any individual granting “religious exemption.”

Listening to the Holy Spirit

Pastor Sunnock of Victory Life Church has seen the pandemic pull churches off course, turning them into battlegrounds over personal and political issues.

“I think as a pastor, the way we approach this is there’s not a Bible verse that says get a vaccine or not get a vaccine,” Sunnock says. “If only it was that simple and clear.”

When approached by any members of their congregation about providing a letter to support a vaccine exemption, he and his staff turn it into a discussion.

“It’s not a question of a sin, it’s listening to the Holy Spirit,” Sunnock says. 

If someone in the congregation feels fine getting the vaccine, then the spiritual leaders say go for it. Victory Life Church isn’t against vaccinations and wouldn’t write in a referral letter that they don’t support the COVID-19 vaccine.

If someone has a bad feeling about getting the vaccine, then it’s up to the pastoral staff to explore that — the same way they would explore the big questions that aren’t addressed in the commandments. 

As a non-denominational Christian church, Victory Life believes the body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, a guide to spiritual matters. Pastor Sunnock says if someone has “a gut feeling,” to put it into layman’s terms, it could be God sending a message.

“It comes down to: We help people hear and trust God’s leading in their life,” Sunnock says.

The staff has written some letters in support of a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine, saying they believe the applicant is led and directed by God, and this person believes he or she is being directed to not get the vaccine.

“We’re not a political entity, we’re a spiritual one,” Sunnock says.

More than a buzzword

The modern role of the church has been reduced by some to a “religious exemption.” But the pandemic era has also been a time of working for the common good.

“Caring for each other is not specific to us, but certainly a strong tenant of our faith,” Cessna says.

Bishop Bradley joked the major thing the Diocese did was not doing things. Outside of making Mass available, they had to cancel, postpone or reschedule a variety of events when it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to bring people together.

“Collectively, we’ve been able to harness the power of the new media and digital media,” Cessna says. They’ve been proactive about keeping human connection, whether it’s a phone call or a prayer posted on the website.

Bishop Bradley says he is proud of the way Catholic Charities have been able to effectively pivot to meet new demands in the community.

“They started a food ministry, recognizing that people who had never found themselves in these situations of needing food assistance, would be there,” Cessna says.

The big project for Victory Life Church during the pandemic has been refurbishing a house that will serve as a safe space for recovering addicts. The Hope House will be a place for graduates of a recovery program to get their life back together.

The effects of pandemic grief will be with us for a while, but Pastor Sunnock sees the church’s role as to help people through it. 

“To find hope and not to live a life of fear, but the hope and the promises that Christ offers.”

Read more articles by Annie J. Kelley.

Annie J. Kelley is a communications manager and freelance reporter. She's been writing stories about Battle Creek for 15 years and helps organize community storytelling through the Mosaic Storytelling Showcase.