The Biden administration’s requirement that church leaders decide who gets a religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine mandates has created a crisis of conscience for Catholics, dividing their bishops and sparking outcry among some First Amendment scholars.
In recent weeks, various U.S. bishops have taken positions at odds with each other on granting the exemptions, dividing their flocks bitterly and suggesting that the faithful might simply hop jurisdictions to get a dispensation.
The bishops of Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego and New York City have all forbidden their priests from granting religious exemptions to churchgoers who ask for them. But others, including all four Catholic bishops in Colorado, have issued statements praising the government’s allowance for exemptions and encouraging their pastors to consider all requests.
In the midst of the resulting infighting that has erupted among Catholics about whether to vaccinate, some First Amendment legal scholars have blamed the nation’s second Catholic president for tormenting his co-religionists by taking away their sense of moral autonomy in the matter.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment forbids the government from attacking an individual’s religious belief just because it may not conform to the dictates of a particular church or its leaders,” said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based religious freedom advocacy group.
“The government has no authority to wade into doctrinal disputes, and from a First Amendment perspective, once it is clear that a person’s religious belief is ‘sincere,’ that part of the inquiry ends.”
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