Federal public services, health service providers and many large Canadian employers have begun requiring vaccination for employees and clients amid continuing immunization efforts and a fall fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Church of Canada and its communities of faith, facing a patchwork of COVID-19 regulations across Canada, are unlikely to follow suit.
Proof-of-vaccination programs, or “vaccine passports,” as they’re more commonly thought of, are now being rolled out in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, with physical or digital versions either available or coming soon. They allow people who are fully vaccinated to attend non-essential venues such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs, plus large sporting or entertainment events. Once in place, they could also make it easier for faith groups to request proof of vaccination for in-person activities and worship.
So far, the United Church at all levels is urging a cautious approach, while leaving every community of faith to decide its own course of action. For the church as an employer, mandatory vaccination has pitfalls. A legal opinion, released by General Council Office in late June and shared by staff in its 16 Regions, says barring a non-vaccinated employee (like a music director, secretary, or minister) from the workplace (such as a church), could result in a successful claim of “constructive dismissal” and accompanying wrongful dismissal financial damages.
That’s currently not an issue at the church’s Toronto-based General Council Office, which has been closed since March 2020, with only a few employees coming in occasionally for cheque-processing and IT support. Most regional staff have also been largely working remotely. So far, the church has no plans to make vaccination mandatory for them.
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As for communities of faith, most moved worship and meetings online and have allowed ministers to work remotely. Some returned to in-person worship as soon as possible, with masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene in place, after local authorities gave them the green light. But successful mass vaccination drives during last spring and summer suggested a return to past worship practices without measures was possible. Faith leaders were even deemed a priority for early vaccinations in some Ontario municipalities.
With more than 76 percent of Canadians ages 12 and older now fully vaccinated, many congregations are reconsidering in-person worship. General Council executive minister for communications Catherine Rodd says, “The COVID-19 pages on our website have seen a real uptick in traffic during August, when most other pages are quiet, so people are looking for information.”
Information, however, is coming from many different levels. Health and COVID-19 regulations are mainly provincial and territorial matters. Within the United Church, communities of faith follow those regulations while also getting advice on re-opening for in-person worship from Regional Councils. They also need to factor in legal advice from General Council.
Rev. Tricia Gerhard, minister at Sunset United in Regina, is chair of the executive council for Living Skies Region and former member of an ecumenical Saskatchewan COVID-19 advisory group. She is fully vaccinated and encourages people to follow suit, but says “mandatory vaccines make sense health and science-wise, but I am not sure they make sense pastorally.”
“Once we start segregating our communities of faith into vaccinated and unvaccinated, we deepen the grief and trauma that already exists in our communities because of the pandemic – it becomes another way of making worship and community support unreachable.”
On July 11, Saskatchewan lifted all restrictions and encouraged, but not required, government employees to be vaccinated. Churches, like other organizations and institutions in the province, were left to make decisions on COVID-19 regulations for their own congregations.
“I’m sure we will end up having to say … Folks, we really need you to be double-vaxxed to come back in person, and trust that you will be honest.”
Church legal counsel Cynthia Gunn, in a June message, said scriptural guidance should lead congregations to ask, “what is the loving thing to do?” Requiring vaccination in order to attend worship or Bible study could help keep all those in attendance safe. But such a mandate would have to be considered more carefully for those visiting the church for other purposes, such as food, relief or social programs. Gunn couldn’t be reached for more up-to-date comments.
At Halifax’s St. Matthew’s United, the congregation’s clear “open door” policy of “welcoming people regardless of background and social situation, sexual orientation and gender identity…” means mandatory vaccinations are out of the question. “If we’re going to take seriously that essential principle,” says St. Matthew’s minister, Rev. Betsy Hogan, “it’s incumbent on us inside that space, to make sure that people are protected….” That means St. Matthew’s will likely stick to its current policy of mandatory masking and social distancing inside the church.
Gunn’s resource document says churches will also have to consider how to accommodate people who are not, or don’t wish to be vaccinated, how to treat tenants, and how to collect information on vaccine status without violating anyone’s privacy. Rev. Treena Duncan, executive minister for Pacific Mountain Region in B.C. and Chinook Winds in Alberta, says her regions are passing General Council’s legal advice on to communities of faith, but “this is evolving and [we] will adjust as advice and guidance change.”
Since B.C. is putting vaccine cards into place and requires them for all church gatherings other than public worship, requiring proof of vaccination for worship as well might be another step, she says.
Recent posts from ministers on the United Church’s Facebook page point to strong support for vaccination among ministers but an equally strong aversion to policing vaccination of church members, adherents or clients.
The best solution, says Rev. Jeff Doucette, may be including churches — now left to make their own decisions by governments as well as General Council — on the list of places requiring vaccine passports. The minister at Enniskillen-Tyrone United in Tyrone, Ont., says churches were told early in the pandemic to close because they were not essential. But now, churches aren’t being treated like other non-essential services that residents need vaccine passports to access.
‘I don’t understand how a place of worship is any less important’: Religious leaders ask to be included in Ontario’s vaccine certificate https://t.co/5RLmIMU79j
— Toronto Star (@TorontoStar) September 2, 2021
Enniskillen-Tyrone United has held outdoor services in its garden, in tandem with worship broadcasting on Facebook Live. It also brought in a pharmacist for two online education sessions on COVID-19 vaccination, where many concerns were addressed. The community of faith’s board is now considering what approach to take.
“It’s not really about vaccine passports, it’s about how do we keep our people safe,” says Doucette. “I’m sure we will end up having to say … Folks, we really need you to be double-vaxxed to come back in person, and trust that you will be honest.”
Some congregations are already doing that, while keeping masking, social distancing and hand hygiene in place.
Outright anti-vaxxers or even the vaccine-hesitant are hard to find — or keeping a very low profile — in the United Church. Rev. Peter Hartmans, executive minister for Ontario’s Shining Waters and Canadian Shield Regions, says he doesn’t know any ministry personnel in his Regions who opposed vaccination.
“My hope is that mandatory vaccination will not be necessary, as folks who are able to get vaccinated, are vaccinated for their own safety and the safety of others,” he says.
In campaigning for the September federal election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised protection from legal challenges for groups or businesses who demand proof of vaccination from customers. But that may not be enough to persuade United Church communities.
“This isn’t as straightforward as ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ or ‘wear your seatbelt’,” says Gerhard. “We have an obligation to keep our people healthy physically, mentally and spiritually…. But how do we find the balance?”
Mike Milne is a writer living in Owen Sound, Ont.
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