As a growing number of government agencies and private employers are mandating COVID vaccines, a schism has erupted in the Catholic Church over the validity of religious exemptions from the shots.  

Several Colorado bishops produced a document insisting that church doctrine allows for religious exemptions from mandatory vaccines.  

“In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are convicted that the government should not impose medical interventions on an individual or group of persons. We urge respect for each person’s convictions and personal choices,” the bishops wrote in response to an order from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock requiring that all city employees be fully vaccinated by the end of next month.

But Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego holds the opposite view. He recently issued a letter to priests under his jurisdiction asserting that nothing in Catholic teaching requires religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. 

“[T]he Holy See has made it clear that receiving the Covid vaccine is perfectly consistent with Catholic faith, and indeed laudatory in the light of the common good in this time of pandemic,” McElroy wrote.

The internal squabbling is indicative of an ongoing struggle in the church between a hard-right conservative faction and a more moderate wing. But at the end of the day, it may be irrelevant to the debate over religious exemptions. The Supreme Court has made it clear that a person’s religious views are not limited by whatever denomination he or she may choose to join. People are free to augment those beliefs with their own views.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case called Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security. It concerned a man named William A. Frazee who, after being laid off from a government job, was denied unemployment benefits because he refused to take a retail position that involved working on Sundays.

Frazee explained that, based on his Christian beliefs, he could not work on Sundays. But while Frazee identified as a Christian, he did not belong to any particular denomination or church. Nor did he rely on any particular Christian body’s teachings in concluding that it was wrong to work on Sundays.

An Illinois appellate court ruled against Frazee. The court concluded that “the injunction against Sunday labor must be found in a tenet or dogma of an established religious sect.”  

The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous opinion, the court observed, “Never did we suggest that unless a claimant belongs to a sect that forbids what his job requires, his belief, however sincere, must be deemed a purely personal preference rather than a religious belief.”

This makes sense. A person’s religious beliefs need not be tied a larger body of believers. When it comes to religion in America, you are free to do your own thing. Religious freedom means that you can adopt some church doctrines while rejecting or augmenting others. Your religious freedom does not hinge on what your bishop, rabbi, imam or pastor believes. It rests on what you believe.

But the fact that you may believe something sincerely doesn’t mean you automatically deserve an exemption from a law or policy that everyone else must follow – and that is what has been so far missing from the debate over all kinds of religion-based exemptions from secular law. A belief, after all, can be sincerely held yet still dangerous or not in society’s best interest.

Religious exemptions from vaccines exist in some states because of laws. Those laws can be changed, and the exemptions can be curbed or done away with entirely.

As we face spiking COVID cases due to the Delta variant, giving some religious believers – and those who merely claim they have a certain belief – an automatic exemption from sensible public health regulations designed to protect us all is a reckless policy we can no longer afford.