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With More Employer COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates, Some Western Kentucky Church Leaders Weigh Religious Exemptions

The Christian Science Society in Murray, Kentucky.
Dustin Wilcox
The Christian Science Society in Murray, Kentucky.

As more employers across the country are requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, religious exemptions to opt out of receiving the vaccines have increasingly come into the national spotlight. Some western Kentucky church leaders are weighing the need for religious exemptions and are offering guidance on the vaccines to congregations.

More than a dozen national corporations across the country including Walmart, Tyson Foods and United Airlines have mandated a COVID-19 vaccine for some or all of their workers. With those mandates, many of those companies are also offering medical or religious exemptions from receiving a vaccine.

This is as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to strain hospitals across the state, with Kentucky health officials on Thursday reporting more than 2,100 hospitalizations due to the coronavirus across the state, along with more than 5,000 new cases reported, the second highest daily report since the pandemic began.

Healthcare provider Baptist Health, with hospital locations in Paducah, Hopkinsville and Madisonville, announced to employees on Aug. 2 a requirement to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 31. Employees seeking religious or medical exemptions can apply by Aug. 30, but must periodically test for COVID-19 if approved.

“We know the vaccines are one of the best ways to combat this virus,” said Baptist Health CEO Gerard Colman in a statement earlier this month. “We must continue to lead by example by requiring that all Baptist Health employees are fully vaccinated. It is the ethical and responsible thing to do to live our mission of improving the healthcare of the communities that we serve.”

Mercy Health, with locations in Paducah and Irvine, followed suit on Aug. 10, also allowing religious and medical exemptions. Nanette Bentley, public relations director at Mercy Health, said the policy is still under development, so employees do not yet have a deadline to be vaccinated.

These policies have received some backlash from employees. Employees at Baptist Health Hardin in Elizabethtown protested against the mandate outside the hospital Aug. 4, and another protest in Paducah was held last week by healthcare workers against mandates at local hospitals.

Pastor Joey Reed with the Mayfield First United Methodist Church (UMC), however, sees vaccine mandates as an opportunity to protect oneself and others, with minimal risks from the vaccines themselves. Reed said he supports vaccines and doesn’t foresee the need for religious exemptions from them.

“It’s not something that I would feel is within my purview,” Reed said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been encouraging folks to look at the example of Jesus Christ as a selfless person, someone who is not only willing to take risks but was willing to put his life on the line for the entire world.”

Bishop Bill McAlilly of the Memphis Conference of the UMC, serving the Purchase region of Kentucky, also said followers should be committed to “doing no harm” in their daily lives.

“Over the past 18 months, we have proven we can adapt quickly to ensure our ministries continue safely,” McAlilly said in a statement earlier this month. “Along with masking and social distancing, we know vaccination is the most valuable tool available to combat this pandemic.”

So far, the Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, representing hundreds of churches across the state, has not fielded any religious exemption requests about employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Communications Director Cathy Bruce.

Dustin Wilcox
The sign outside the Christian Science Society in Murray, Kentucky.

The Christian Science Society in Murray is not providing documentation for religious exemptions. Pamela Walker with the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Kentucky said members traditionally believe in the power of prayer as a method of healing.

“Sometimes, Christian Scientists will seek to have religious accommodations if they want to rely on spiritual means for healing, but they always give way to the public good,” Walker said. “Before I retired, I was a lawyer. I have great respect for the law and following the law of the land, and that’s what Christian Science is about, especially in these situations.”

Walker said the church’s messaging hasn’t changed as the pandemic has intensified because it has always focused on making individual health decisions in accordance with the law.

“A lot of it may have come to light more during this pandemic because there is a greater urgency for all of us to follow the golden rule,” Walker said, referring to treating those of differing viewpoints with respect. “Our times seem pretty divisive right now. I think our basic approach is to continue to follow the golden rule, to have great respect for others in matters of public health.”

Elsewhere in Kentucky, the Lexington Catholic Diocese recently ordered employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 1, and pastors are permitted to implement the vaccination requirement at the parish level.

Despite the varying responses from churches in the state, one Murray attorney says employers are well within their rights to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine.

“When you work for a corporation, you often contract away your ability to make certain decisions,” Attorney Jacob Caddas said. “You take the job under their conditions, whatever they may be.”

As an example, Caddas referenced an incident when TV star Phil Robertson from the show “Duck Dynasty” was suspended indefinitely in 2013 following his controversial remarks on homosexuality.

Caddas said if an employer fires an employee over refusal to get vaccinated, and the employee sues said employer on the basis of religion exemption, the employee must prove to a judge he or she holds sincere beliefs against vaccination.

“It’s like people who just slap service stickers on their dogs and take them in restaurants and wherever they want,” Caddas said. “You can’t do that stuff because it delegitimizes the actual program. Likewise, claiming a religious exemption disingenuously will ultimately backfire most likely when you’re asked to prove it.”

Dustin Wilcox is a television production student at Murray State University. He graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 2019.
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