Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane wrote on Tuesday that Catholic schools in the diocese will be expected to comply with the state’s vaccine mandate, while also seeking to clarify exemptions under state law and how Catholic schools will acknowledge those exemptions.

“We continue to comply with Governor Inslee’s mandate that all school employees receive one of the approved vaccines. The state recognizes two exemptions from this mandate. The first is a medical exemption that one may obtain through his or her physician. The second is a religious exemption which, for us as Catholics, rests on the fact that a properly formed conscience is inviolable,” Bishop Daly wrote Aug. 25

“A Catholic school employee could, therefore, exercise his or her right to a religious exemption. This exemption places the burden on the individual’s conscience rather than on Church approval.”

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.

While the mandate allows medical or religious exemption based on “a sincerely held religious belief,” Bishop Daly has noted that clergy are not to “replace one’s conscience,” but to “assist with informing a person’s conscience,” and therefore “priests should not be involved in signing any document concerning the conscience of another.”

Across the state to the west, Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle has said Catholics do not have religious grounds for refusing the vaccine or seeking an exemption to the mandate, and has similarly instructed clergy not to sign any exemptions based on personal conscience.

Bishop Daly encouraged priests to speak with employees and parishioners who are uncomfortable with the vaccination for religious or moral reasons and help them to understand why the Church encourages vaccination.

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. 

Daly affirmed the Church’s guidance that vaccination is morally permissible and beneficial for the common good, and concluded with a prayer that “mask-wearing and an increase in vaccinations will help bring an end to the suffering and death caused by this pandemic.”

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“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 in a statement Aug. 19 in response to the governor’s mandate. 

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

In a Q&A accompanying his Aug. 25 letter, Bishop Daly again addressed the question of whether priests of the dioceses will be signing exemption forms for Catholics wishing to be exempt from the mandate. 

“A Catholic individual, under church teaching, is capable of testifying to the state of his or her own conscience on a particular question. Their self-attestation is sufficient both in regards to state law on religious exemptions and church teaching,” the document reads. 

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 and of Colorado, 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. 

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.

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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.” Pope Francis has encouraged COVID-19 vaccination, calling it an "act of love."

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.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker is expected to soon announce a similar vaccine mandate for teachers as well as mask mandates for students.