Springs Church said it plans to provide religious exemptions to members who do not wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an email to members, Springs Church told its congregants that, with vaccine mandate deadlines looming, they have “made the decision to provide religious exemptions to our attenders if they think that may help them with their employment.”
The email states the proposed religious exemption “may not apply to all employee situations” and asks congregants to contact the church for more information.
Reverend Erik Parker, pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church where proof of vaccination is required to attend in-person service, said he saw the letter Thursday night. He said there isn’t any religious grounds for vaccine exemption.
“Biblically speaking, from the perspective of our faith from official Christian doctrine, I don’t really see any place from a faith perspective that we would be able to say ‘no’ to the vaccine,” said Parker.
“There’s just no reason that we would want to exempt ourselves from something intended to keep us safe, intended to care for the community,” he said.
Parker adds that given Springs Church’s large size and influence, their stance on vaccinations could prompt congregants at other churches to ask religious leaders for an exemption.
It’s a concern shared by Michael Pahl, executive minister with the Mennonite Church of Manitoba.
“Smaller congregations could face some backlash or some ripple effects from within their own congregation,” said Pahl.
“You know, if Springs Church is doing this, why doesn’t our church do this?”
The Mennonite Church of Canada has already released a statement signed by Pahl that there is no theological justification for “granting a religious exemption from vaccinations against COVID-19.”
From a public health perspective, bioethicist Arthur Schafer said Springs Church, or any other church, can’t justifiably offer a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The authorities of this church think they have the right to expose innocent members of the community to infection because their members won’t have to be vaccinated?” said Schafer.
“It just doesn’t wash,” he said, “The letter is a joke but it’s a bad joke because it’s really an attempt to undermine public health.”
Springs Church Academy elementary schools are 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 Springs Church Academy graduation ceremony appeared to show members breaking gathering restrictions.
In a statement, the provincial government said “under current public health orders, there is no exemption for religious reasons for those eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.”
“At this time, public health is only permitting a medical exemption under very specific circumstances,” the statement continues.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman spoke out against churches offering religious exemptions to congregants.
“I am aware of one church in our community that is publicly advertising to its members that they can provide an exemption, which I think is a ridiculous position to take,” Bowman said during a Friday news conference.
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