After Washington state announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school employees, the Bishop of Spokane said that conscience rights should be respected, but that priests shouldn’t sign documents regarding the conscience of another.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement Aug. 18 for all employees who work in K-12 schools, most early childhood learning centers, and higher education. The mandate applies to public and private schools.

The mandate allows medical or religious exemption, but does not address conscientious exemption.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane issued a statement in response to the governor’s mandate affirming the conscious rights of the individual Catholic to decide whether to receive the vaccine, while also stating that “priests should not be involved in signing any document concerning the conscience of another.”

Bishop Daly, while affirming the Church’s guidance that vaccination is morally permissible and beneficial for the common good, noted that clergy are not to “replace one’s conscience,” but to “assist with informing a person’s conscience.”

“While we encourage vaccination, we do not intend on violating the consciences of our Catholic school teachers nor do we intend on vouching for another person’s conscience,” Bishop Daly wrote. 

“If a person has health concerns or moral objections about vaccines, he or she should not be forced into being vaccinated.”

Bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates. 

Some, such as the bishops of South Dakota, have explicitly expressed support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions, while in contrast, many bishops in California, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions from receiving COVID-19 vaccines, stating that there is no basis in Catholic moral teaching for rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds. 

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Bishop Daly’s guidance affirms an individual’s conscience rights on the matter, while also acknowledging that “the individual does not need a clergyman to vouch for [their faith].”

Bishop Daly, speaking to CNA, said he has relied on the Catholic Medical Association and the National Catholic Bioethics Center to provide guidance in his decision making on the question of COVID-19 vaccination. 

Inslee said in his announcement that he would not “gamble with the health of our children, our educators and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve” in the release. Educators will have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment according to the announcement. Coaches, bus drivers, volunteers, and anyone else working in a school environment must also be vaccinated.

Some guidance is already available in a proclamation dated Aug. 9, which says that workers for state agencies and health care providers are not required to be vaccinated if they demonstrate “a sincerely held religious belief.” 

Inslee’s office told CNA in an email that the “state Office of Financial Management HR department is finalizing details on the process of applying for religious exemptions.” 

A vaccination exemption request for the State of Washington must include a statement that articulates how the mandate conflicts with the “religious observance, practice, or belief of the individual.”

Before and as COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out, some Catholics raised concerns about the drugs’ remote connection to aborted fetal tissue. Those produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on cell lines likely derived from elective abortions decades ago, while the vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson was directly produced using the cell lines.

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoing guidance from the Vatican, has since stated that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use because of their remote connection with abortion, but if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

In its December 2020 Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.” 

It said that “in the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination.”

“Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent,” the congregation wrote.

Bishop Daly said, “We would encourage people to follow their conscience on this. I do believe people will do the right thing. I think it’s going to be rare that a person in conscience will not seek vaccination.”

He also noted that people want to know the truth, and to be able to trust leadership in the medical field, politics, and the Church, and that occasional contradictory guidance from civic leaders during the pandemic— such as the closure of churches while leaving businesses such as liquor stores open— has left some Catholics confused about how to proceed regarding vaccination. 

Bishop Daly says civic leaders’ “inconsistencies” have contributed to the angst of the overall situation.

Citizens “don't want to be lied to, and they don't want to be treated as if they're simpletons,” Bishop Daly said. “A lot of people’s reluctance has come from half-truths, misinformation, shaming.”

Washington and Oregon both issued vaccine mandates for educators last week. In California and New Jersey, educators have the option of either showing proof of vaccination or being tested at least once per week. Some cities and school districts, such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles also recently announced a vaccine requirement for all school employees.