Springs Church said it plans to grant religious exemptions to members who do not want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an email to members, Springs Church told its congregations that with vaccine mandate deadlines threatening, they have “made the decision to grant religious exemptions to our participants if they think it can help them with their employment.” “
The email says the proposed religious exemption “must not apply to all staff situations” and asks congregations to contact the church for more information.
Pastor Erik Parker, pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church, where proof of vaccination is required to attend personal service, said he saw the letter Thursday night. He said there is no religious justification for vaccine exemption.
“Biblically, from the perspective of our faith from the official Christian doctrine, I can not really see anywhere from a faith perspective where we would be able to say ‘no’ to the vaccine,” Parker said.
“There’s just no reason we want to exclude ourselves from something that is meant to keep us safe, intended to care for society,” he said.
Parker adds that given the great size and influence of Springs Church, their stance on vaccinations may prompt congregations in other churches to ask religious leaders for an exception.
That is a concern shared by Michael Pahl, CEO of the Mennonite Church of Manitoba.
“Smaller congregations may be exposed to some setbacks or some ripple effects from their own congregation,” Pahl said.
“You know, if Springs Church does this, why does our church not do this?”
The Mennonite Church of Canada has already issued a statement signed by Pahl stating that there is no theological justification for “granting a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccinations.”
From a public health perspective, bioethicist Arthur Schafer said Springs Church or any other church cannot rightly offer a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Do the authorities in this church believe they have a right to expose innocent members of society to infection because their members do not need to be vaccinated?” said Schafer.
“It just does not wash,” he said, “the letter is a joke, but it’s a bad joke because it really is an attempt to undermine public health.”
Springs Church Academy Elementary Schools is currently the site of two COVID-19 outbreaks in Manitoba, with most cases among students.
Springs Church was also part of the group of seven churches that challenged the province’s COVID-19 health orders and also came under criticism when photos of a graduation ceremony at Springs Church Academy appeared to show members violating fundraising restrictions.
In a statement, the provincial government said “under current public health orders, there is no exception for religious reasons for those eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.”
“At present, public health only allows a medical exemption under very specific circumstances,” the statement continued.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman spoke out against churches offering religious exemptions to congregations.
“I am aware of a church in our community that publicly advertises to its members that they can grant an exception, which I think is a ridiculous attitude to take,” Bowman said during a Friday news conference.