Coercive Covid-19 Vaccine Mandates are Bad Public Policy
Several provincial governments have rolled out vaccine passports and/or require proof of vaccination against Covid-19 to attend events or enter “non-essential” spaces like gyms, restaurants, and theatres. Some provincial leaders have publicly mused about requiring proof of vaccination for church attendance. Both Manitoba and New Brunswick have developed a system where worship services have little or no restrictions if proof of vaccination is required. Alternatively, places of worship are required to operate at reduced capacity and implement increased restrictions if no proof of vaccination is required in those provinces. Federally, our prime minister is adamant that his government will require Covid-19 vaccination for federally regulated employees and for travel by plane or train. And many businesses, universities, and other government and non-government institutions are also requiring vaccination as a condition of employment or to be on their premises.
There are two separate policy issues here: vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines. Although distinct, they raise similar underlying concerns for us. ARPA Canada’s stance is that coercive vaccine mandates (directly as a condition of employment despite having bona fides reasons to not be vaccinated, for example, or indirectly though vaccine passports) are bad public policy. That conclusion, on its own, doesn’t determine whether we should submit to the policy. But we believe such a coercive policy does more harm than good and would be particularly wrong if imposed on churches. Let’s start with the issue of churches first.
Imposing vaccine mandates on churches is wrong
Elders of the church are given the authority and responsibility to call members of the local church together for corporate worship. When the people of God gather together, they are not segregated: there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Colossians 3:11-17, see also 1 Corinthians 10:17). In other words, civil government does not have authority from God to determine who comes to worship. The call to come is free and open to all. It is in corporate worship that the keys of the kingdom are clearly exercised: the preaching of the gospel (including through the administration of the sacraments) and church discipline. These keys are given to the church, not the state. While the civil government may put reasonable limits on numbers within a building (fire codes, etc.) they cannot dictate the types of people who can gather for worship of God.
This is not to suggest that there is never a reason for someone to be denied admission to corporate worship. There are Scriptural reasons and standards by which someone could be denied admission by church leaders. One reason relates to contagious diseases but the standard for denying access to the assembly of God on the grounds of a contagious disease is set through careful consideration of a variety of scriptural principles by the church elders and not by the civil government.
Furthermore, as Dr. Ted Fenske writes in a beautifully honest self-evaluation, for many of us Christians, our emotions of fear and of hope have been misplaced. We have generally exhibited an excessive fear of Covid-19 (or of tyranny or of vaccines) despite our confession that we belong in life and death to a faithful saviour Jesus Christ, who promises us eternal life, and repeatedly tells us to fear the Lord and not our circumstances. And we have generally misplaced our hopes in vaccines, as wonderful as the medical technology may be, to rescue us (or misplaced hope in the Charter, or courts or certain politicians), despite our hope being built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. If there is any place that these misplaced fears and hopes can be corrected, it will be in the church, under faithful gospel preaching, united despite our differences at the table of fellowship. For the civil government to dictate whom the church may (not) admit is a clear step too far and should be resisted by the church.
Coercing citizens to take a vaccine is bad public policy
Not only would imposing vaccine passports or mandates on churches be wrong, imposing coercive vaccination policies on the general public is also bad public policy for a few reasons:
- Convince, don’t coerce. Good public policy in this case should, as much as possible, convince the majority of people to get on board through education and awareness. While a civil government can promote and encourage healthy diet, it can’t require obese citizens to take diet pills. People need to understand and accept the public good of a policy decision for it to be maximally effective. Forcing citizens into decisions, particularly a decision that directly impacts what they put into their bodies, is likely to further anger and alienate those who were hesitant or outright resistant.
- Freedom of conscience (enumerated as a fundamental freedom in section 2(a) of the Charter) should be respected. As ARPA Canada details in a forthcoming policy report on freedom of conscience, to violate a person’s conscience is to do violence to their integrity. Both within the Church and outside it, some people are compelled by conscience to get the Covid-19 vaccine or to refuse it. The conscience is a moral compass which helps people act according to their beliefs of right and wrong. It judges one’s own conduct and is ultimately accountable to God. It is wrong for a person to disobey their conscience, to do what they believe to be wrong (1 Corinthians 10:23-33). Exemptions for religious, medical, or conscientious reasons can be obtained for other mandatory vaccinations within Canada such as those for children enrolled in school. Similar exemptions should be available for the Covid-19 vaccine as well (this currently varies from province to province).
- Bodily autonomy is important. Christians who are outspoken against abortion and euthanasia might shy away from an argument for bodily autonomy. But there is a significant difference: in abortion, we are talking about the intentional killing of another human being, the preborn child. Regarding euthanasia, Christians have long drawn a clear line between intentionally killing a patient (immoral) and a patient refusing medical treatment (a moral option, depending on intent). Vaccination falls into that latter category – a moral option that a person can choose to refuse.
- Christian thought has long held that decisions around what we put into our bodies (diet, medicine) are personal decisions for which adults are responsible directly to God. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and we need to take care of it (see Q&A 105 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Matthew 4:7). If a person is genuinely concerned that getting the vaccine will do more harm than good or that getting the vaccine is otherwise unwise, unethical, or morally wrong, they must be convinced, not coerced, of the opposite view. And if they cannot be convinced, then less violence is done by respecting that choice than coercing the individual to take the vaccine. The Supreme Court of Canada’s rulings on medical decision making (under section 7 of the Charter, the right to life, liberty and security of the person) have so far supported this principle.
- Having said that, Christians are not only responsible to God, but also to other people, whether neighbours or other office holders (elders, employers, etc.). The church may discipline someone who ingests too much alcohol for unrepentant drunkenness. Your employer may fire you for operating machinery while intoxicated with marijuana. So, though nobody should force you to put medicine or food into your body, it does not necessarily mean there should be no consequences for your choices of what (not) to ingest. In the context of the Covid-19 vaccine, an employer may feel that vaccinating her employees is the best course of action. Such an employer should be free to encourage all employees to be vaccinated, and even insist on it subject only to reasonable or bona fides exceptions which should be accommodated as much as possible.
- Mandating vaccines across the board runs roughshod over the exceptional cases. We saw something similar with mask mandates where, for months, the needs of people with hearing impairment or breathing difficulties were ignored or even harassed by service providers or members of the public. With broad mandates, we should expect the same kind of treatment for the minority of people who cannot take the vaccine for medical reasons or reasons of conscience. British Columbia’s plan to disallow medical, religious, or conscientious exemption to the vaccine mandate is particularly concerning.
- Good public policy will prefer a least restrictive or invasive means to substantially achieve the policy goal: rapid tests, for example, are less invasive and, for some people, preferred over the vaccine. Not only that, but rapid tests are arguably more effective: a person who is not carrying the virus cannot pass it on, whereas a vaccinated person has a (very slim) possibility of carrying and passing on the virus. Such an approach will also differentiate between the ambivalent who have simply not bothered getting a vaccine out of laziness, and those who have wrestled with the question and have a bona fides reason not to take the vaccine.
- People should, subject to certain limits required by justice, be free to associate or not associate with whomever they wish, including in commercial or business settings. A store should be free to serve vaccinated and unvaccinated people if they choose. But if a restaurant or theatre freely decides they only want to allow vaccinated people in their space (subject to employment and human rights law considerations) then so be it. These decisions should be made by the private institutions, not under pressure from the civil government.
Let’s boil it down: what are we allowing in principle if we support or allow a coercive mandatory vaccination program? In principle, we would be affirming that the civil government has the power to coerce a minority of the population to inject a foreign substance into their bodies, a particular substance that the minority believes (rightly or wrongly) is either unsafe, unethical, or immoral. This is a bad precedent and should be opposed.
So, what do we do?
These coercive policies are having real-world consequences for Canadians. Some people are expecting to lose their jobs while others may be forgoing post-secondary education, as just two examples. Anger and resentment is festering. It is very apparent that we are living in a different social and political-legal climate than just two years ago. Yet, as Paul says, “We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.” God is sovereign and He still affords us many opportunities to shine the light of the gospel into our communities. Here follow some initial thoughts at what you can do at this time:
- Whether vaccinated or not, if you agree that coercive vaccination policies will do more harm than good, your elected representatives need to hear from you. Please use our EasyMail system to send a note to your MLA or MPP (copied to the premier and the public health officer of your province). Even better, give them a phone call. Thank them for their work and encourage them to not impose vaccine mandates on churches. Urge them to respect personal medical decisions and protect the privacy of their citizens. And remind them that you are praying for them. Always engage respectfully, realizing that their task is a difficult one, in which they are required to weigh public health policy with individual freedom and responsibility.
- Start a community conversation by writing a Letter to the Editor of you local paper. Make use of ARPA Canada’s EasyLetter system which will give you contact information for those editors, as well as tips on writing your letter.
- For those who are vaccinated, your voice is important in defending your brothers and sisters who believe they cannot be vaccinated, at least not at this time, whether for medical, moral, or other reasons. Speak up for them, even if you disagree with their reasons.
- For those who risk losing their job: if you are a member of a union, check with your union rep and seek help with filing a grievance. If not unionized, you may want to call a lawyer. Employment law requires “reasonable accommodation to the point of undue hardship” for claims grounded in religion or disability. For example, an accommodation might be to have a regular Covid-19 test instead, or to work in an area with low in-person contact. If you were fired, you should have received a compensation package. If not, you may want to ask about it.
- For those who have started university this fall and cannot be vaccinated: you probably have a choice to either do remote learning for a(nother) year, or to defer your studies for a year. Some universities are not requiring proof of vaccination, so you might consider a transfer. Other universities are allowing for medical exemptions and/or exemptions under the Human Rights Code. The Code protects against discrimination based on “creed” which those who conscientiously object to vaccination might be able to rely upon. You can ask for an exemption from the university on those grounds.
- For those who are barred from accessing “non-essential services” like restaurants, movie theatres, certain forms of travel, and so on, be patient. To be a conscientious objector doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever have to suffer inconvenience from time to time. That said, for those with a medical exemption, you may have a discrimination claim on the basis of disability. However, pursuing such a claim will be onerous.
- Finally, for those who have not been vaccinated, if you have no medical, ethical or conscientious reason not to be vaccinated, and you face the prospect of not being able to access certain services, it is a legitimate choice to get the vaccine. We should oppose the government mandating the Covid-19 vaccine, but it is legitimate for you to decide that your best course of action is to get the shot.
Living in Canada today comes with increasing challenges. There is a gathering storm around many of the issues and institutions we care about. This latest development around vaccine mandates might feel like the storm is only gathering strength. About this gathering storm one author writes, “[Christians] have a real and undeniable political responsibility. We bear a real cultural responsibility. We may not produce the culture, but we operate in the culture and are stewards of the gospel in our cultural context. We have many responsibilities as Christians, but we have one gospel hope – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our hope does not rest with temporal victory – though it understands the importance of politics – it rests in the One who sits at the right hand of the throne of God.”
All of these developments are within His power and hand. Jesus promises to protect and care for His church. We can move forward in confidence, resting in the assurance that nothing can move Him from the throne.
ARPA Canada’s response does not weigh in on the question of the efficacy or safety of the Covid-19 vaccine. We encourage our readers to speak with their own doctor or to a Christian doctor or nurse in their community about the vaccine. Dr. Ted Fenske, a Christian cardiologist in Edmonton, AB, wrote a thorough article on vaccines expressly for a Christian audience back in December 2020, which may be a good place to start.
And we welcome your feedback! There are strong differences of opinion on this issue so please do be charitable in your critique. If this article was helpful, let us know. And if there are ways to improve or strengthen it, we’d love to hear from you too.