Alberta Health Services President and CEO Verna Yiu at yesterday's COVID-19 briefing. Alberta Newsroom/Flickr.com

Unfortunately for Canadian anti-vaxxers, it takes time and a certain amount of ingenuity to establish a new religion, which has considerably complicated the task of getting religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

This factoid came to mind during Alberta’s daily COVID-19 update yesterday, when Alberta Health Services President and CEO Verna Yiu revealed that about 750 of AHS’s more than 100,000 employees have sought exemptions from their employer’s vaccine requirement, about half of them on religious grounds. 

The other half have, she said, sought exemptions on medical grounds, and a few brave or foolish souls have tried to claim they qualify for both. 

The thing is, medical exemptions are hard to get, but not completely impossible. The caveat is that the employee must be able to prove a legitimate medical reason, such as a severe allergy to something in the vaccine or a current diagnosis of inflammation of the heart muscle. Such reasons are exceedingly rare. 

But a religious exemption will be even tougher to get, owing to the fact that none of the existing major world religions practiced in Canada forbid getting vaccinated against disease. 

This has created a problem for vaccine refuseniks motivated by conspiracy theories, politics or whatever, who thought it would be a snap to get a religious exemption and dodge the shot.

This is because folks claiming exemptions based on religion or other protected human rights grounds are going to have to produce solid evidence that their religion actually prevents them for being vaccinated. 

This point is being made over and over again these days as legions of employment lawyers for corporations, governments and unions scour legal precedents to guide them in how they can respond to the considerable number of people in the West determined to spurn a life-saving vaccine. 

And what this means is that if you’re seeking a religious exemption, you’re not only going to have to show that you’re religious, but you’ll have to prove your religion says no to vaccines.

If you’re nominally a Christian affiliated with one of the plethora of denominations large and small found in Canada — whence come the majority of anti-vaxxers in this country — this doesn’t make it easy.

For example, if the vaccine dodger in question is a Roman Catholic, they’re clearly out of luck. Pope Francis has spoken and what he had to say last April is that “getting vaccinated is a simple yet profound way to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”

“Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from Covid-19,” he also said, making it pretty clearly where he stood on the matter. Given the authority of the Pope in the Catholic Church, that’s about as definitive as you can get.

Now the Roman Catholic Church is not only big — including about 13 million Canadians a decade ago — it’s hardly a hotbed of anti-vaccine nutters.

This isn’t necessarily so for some small Protestant sects. Consider the Mennonite Church Canada, which has also spoken up on this issue, with a message not all that different from the Pope’s.

Despite the fact the denomination has only about 30,000 members, this is significant because it is part of a broader but still small Anabaptist community that for whatever reason nowadays harbours many people inclined to want to claim a religious-based exemption from taking the COVID vaccine. 

So what do their church leaders have to say about this? “For a religious exemption to be granted, rationale for exemption must be clearly indicated within our sacred texts or confessional statements,” a statement signed by Mennonite church leaders from across Canada said last month.

“We wish to clarify that there is nothing in the Bible, in our historic confessions of faith, in our theology or in our ecclesiology that justifies granting a religious exemption from vaccinations against COVID-19,” they wrote. (Emphasis added.)

This is a point that bears repeating. If you’re a Christian, there’s no scriptural basis for turning down COVID vaccines, despite a considerable amount of disinformation doing the rounds these days about how some vaccines are made.

“We have heard concerns from some members of our constituency regarding the vaccines,” the Mennonite statement continued. ‘However, we do not believe these concerns justify an exemption from COVID-19 vaccinations on religious grounds from within a Mennonite faith tradition.”

Echoing the Pope — although perhaps not intentionally given their church’s origins — they went on: “From the earliest Biblical writings, in the words of Jesus Christ and in ecclesial writings since Jesus’ ascension, the command to love God and love our neighbour is paramount.”

Vaccine resistors who hoped to use a religious exemption are virtually certain to have to find another excuse.

About those $100 incentives for vaccine refuseniks

Also at yesterday’s Alberta COVID update, as happens increasingly often nowadays, a reporter boldly asked Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw if there’s any actual evidence that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s $100 incentive to get vaccine refuseniks to take their jab has actually worked. 

“You said that you believe it has led to more people getting vaccinated,” said Kevin Nimmock of CTV News about the $15-million-plus Kenney brainstorm. “What evidence do you have to reflect that?’

Here’s Hinshaw’s answer: “So we have received reports in some particular populations where, ahh, you know, we’re working, kind of with our colleagues on the ground, where individuals, again, where resources are part of challenges that they face, we have heard that in some of those groups that the access to compensation has made a difference in their deliberations.’

Evidence? Not much. 

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...