Perhaps it’s never been possible to have agreement on the definition of a faith tradition; ideas about what it means to follow a religion have always been fluid and contentious.

I read a news article this week that a settlement was reached in an employment religious discrimination lawsuit, granting a Minnesota man $65,000 in back pay and damages from his former employer over his refusal to be fingerprinted for a required background check. He said it was against his Christian faith to do so. Henry Harrington claimed that his employer, Ascension Point Recovery Services, a debt collection company, had failed to make the required accommodation for his belief and fired him.

A similar employment case was filed four years ago in Pennsylvania, when a local school bus driver refused fingerprinting as part of her background check, claiming that the process would leave the “mark of the devil” on her, preventing her future entrance to heaven. That’s news to me.

Many more of these religious objection cases have been filed across the country in recent years as social and legal changes have pressed up against long held personal beliefs about social responsibility, employment requirements, privacy rights and our own physical autonomy. Can a life insurance company, considering you for a new policy, require you to release to them your full physical and mental health record, disclose your family medical history, take your blood pressure and a sample of your blood?

Might they also review the public filing of your divorce decree from 10 years back? They have been doing such things legally for decades. Can a federal employer take your photo, driver’s license number, passport information as well fingerprints to screen you for a job? Will it search for any records of arrest or legal charges brought against you in national data bases? Most certainly it will.

As more information about our individual lives is collected and shared, many of us are pushing back. Where does my right to security of person and property end and legal or social demands begin? And when we must make arguments for protecting those intuitive, personal boundaries, it’s no wonder that issues of faith, meaning and core values come front and center.

These same issues, it seems to me, are at the center of the debate around COVID vaccine mandates.

For most of 2020, we prayed and hoped for the miracle of a safe and effective vaccine to be created by our nation’s research scientists, folks who have been steadily working on similar virus strains of influenza, bird flu and SARS for decades. Because of the previous research, the vaccines came quickly, tentatively released after multiple trials with eager volunteers, giving us hope that it would snuff out the pandemic and its possible mutations with our majority immunity.

The vaccine is free for all. Now anyone over 12 can get immunized! And even after weeks and months of pleading and even cash incentives, 20% of eligible Americans have refused this life-saving medicine. I have come to understand this refusal by so many as the result of all the loss of privacy many of us feel over the last two generations mentioned earlier.

Some people, claiming conflicts with the vaccine and their faith practices, have received exemptions from vaccination in the past few months, risking their own health and the life and wellbeing of those around them. Even when such exemptions don’t seem to be wise or practical, current law does allow such freedom when it comes to boundaries set by a person’s sincere religious practice.

But people are still dying, children are still not protected, and our medical personnel are traumatized by the continuing demands on their health and stamina.

As new mandates are announced, reluctant employees are claiming a religious exemption, requesting letters of support from their Christian clergy. I want to go on the record with this admonition: Don’t ask your pastor for such a letter. Your pastor can’t make a coherent faith argument against receiving an approved vaccination that will save your life and the life of those around you.

Why? Because, quite simply, the Christian faith is centered on the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. And if there is a central theme to his life and teaching, it is love of God and love of neighbor. In this, Jesus taught, is all the Law and the Prophets. It’s not about creating a cover for your distrust of government, or resentment that you are expected to take medicine because someone else says so. It is not so you can live your life exactly on your own terms, shouting “freedom” until you are hoarse.

Every day of his life, Jesus spoke and demonstrated his gospel, that as God loves us, so we are called to that same love of one another. To take proven medicine when you can, to save your own life as well as the life of the weak, young or vulnerable, is discipleship work. There is no religious excuse that makes any sense to me.

Love Jesus? Love your neighbor. And get your shots.

The Rev. Lynne Silva-Breen, M.Div., M.A., LMFT, served for over 20 years as a Lutheran parish pastor. She’s currently a family therapist/pastoral counselor and can be contacted at inspiringchange.us. She is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper.

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