This is the second of a two-part series exploring the question of ‘What should Christians think of Vaccine Passports and the Coercing of Conscience?’ You can read the first post here.
In this series, I aim to frame this discussion biblically so that Christians can make sense of the issue and respond well.
And so, here are four further points that help us understand the fraught issue of vaccine passports, conscience, and religious liberty:
1. The Key Question: When Might Governments Have a Compelling Reason for Restricting Religious Liberty?
In the previous post, we saw that the God-given role of Government is to:
i. Be a servant for the good of the people firstly by upholding law and order (Rom 13:1-6)
ii. Not to coerce religious conscience, except where that conscience leads to actions that compromise law and order (e.g. the ISIS believer attacking a supermarket).
There may be good, God-given reasons for restricting some religious liberties. Religious liberty isn’t absolute.
Thus, there may be good, God-given reasons for restricting some religious liberties. In other words, religious liberty isn’t absolute. This applies even to Christians: governments may have legitimate reasons for restricting our liberties.
So, for example, churches are restricted by Government in terms of who they can employ to teach children and youth in church. In NSW, the government has mandated that no one convicted of certain crimes (e.g., paedophilia) is allowed to lead your church’s Sunday school class, no matter how gifted and godly they may now be.
Of course, I’ve yet to hear even the most libertarian minded Christians complain about this restriction. After all, it seems like a reasonable restriction. But such laws do impact a church’s ability to carry out its mission.
Thus, the key issue is not ‘Government must never restrict religious liberty,’ but rather, ‘when is it acceptable for the Government to restrict religious liberty?’
N.b. This balance is codified in international law pertaining to religious liberty, in the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—to which Australia is a signatory:
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. (ICCPR, Article 18.3)
While government restrictions on the employment of paedophiles in the church are deemed acceptable, what about restrictions not related to law and order? In particular, the use of vaccine passports? Is restricting a church’s ability to welcome Christians based on their vaccination status ever acceptable?
To answer this question, we need to take other factors into account:
2. Government (Arguably) Has a Compelling Interest To Protect The Health and Safety Of Its People
(And in times of emergency, it could mean restricting religious liberty).
As we’ve seen in Romans 13, Government does have a role in upholding law and order (e.g. Rom 13:4). And why has God authorised Government to maintain law and order? Because they are God’s servants ‘for our good’ (Rom 13:4).
And thus, it’s not unreasonable for Government to do good to its people by helping protect their health and safety. Whether through road rules, medical regulations, or health and safety laws. Or by providing medical assistance via hospitals and other health care.
There is (humanly speaking) a compelling government interest in protecting the health and safety of its population.
At this point, however, we’ve moved away from the Biblical text of Romans 13 and are in disputable territory (see Rom 14).
But such laws, regulations and provisions seem to be a reasonable outworking of Government working for the good of its people. In principle at least, it doesn’t seem to be Government over-reach (remembering, however, this is disputable territory).
Thus, in principle, there is (humanly speaking) a compelling government interest in protecting the health and safety of its population.
And this compelling health and safety interest has for many decades now placed some restrictions on churches religious liberty:
- Government restricts churches in the type of building they can gather in. For example, building and fire safety codes authorise how many people can meet in church buildings;
- Noise regulations restrict when churches can meet.
As far as I can tell, there has been very little pushback from Christians to these restrictions.
Now in times of crisis, such as a COVID pandemic, a government’s compelling interest could (and arguably should) be to protect the public hospital system from being swamped with COVID patients. If the hospitals were to be over-run—such as has occurred in other places (think Italy, New York, etc.)—other patients (both COVID and non-COVID) would have to be turned away.
The overwhelming of the hospital system would cause direct harm to thousands.
The overwhelming of the hospital system would cause direct harm to thousands.
A responsible government that works for the good of its people would not want to see such a bad thing happen for the sake of the wider community and so could be justified in taking steps to prevent that from happening.
Even when it means restricting liberties: including religious freedoms. Masks. Social distancing. And, as we’ve seen over the last 18 months, lockdowns.
Whether such restrictions are justified and how far such restrictions can go is, Biblically speaking, a disputable matter: the Bible doesn’t give a direct answer to this. And so, Christians of good faith should give each other space to discuss and disagree on this matter.
But by and large, most Christians and Churches voluntarily accepted the need for such restrictions (albeit begrudgingly). Most agreed lockdowns were and are necessary for the public good (even as we’re concerned about their long term impact).
Of course, while governments may have a compelling interest in protecting the population’s health in principle, it’s not clear-cut what this may look like in particular. Does a compelling interest in people’s health and safety mean vaccine passports?
3. Vaccine Passports Could Be A Necessary Way for Government To Protect The Health and Safety of Its People
Again, we’ve moved away from the Biblical text and are on highly disputed grounds.
There is no place for binding Christian conscience on issues where the Scripture is silent.
Thus, we should tread carefully, not putting words into God’s mouth. There is no place for binding Christian conscience on issues where the Scripture is silent.
Yes, we can have an opinion informed by Biblical principles. But we mustn’t condemn other views as sinful before God because they don’t align with our opinion (c.f. Rom 14). Different Christians will come to different conclusions about these issues.
Personally, I think it’s reasonable for Government to have a compelling public interest in protecting the viability of the State’s hospital system from COVID overwhelm (due to the dire consequences this would lead to for thousands of people) even when such restrictions include vaccine passports.
With that said, however, I think a good Scriptural principle (combined with a sober reading of human history) is that governments should be required to demonstrate compelling reasons for restricting people’s liberties (religious or otherwise). They should be able to show they have followed the least restrictive path to getting that outcome.
Thus, when it comes to vaccine passports, the onus should be on governments to show they are necessary (not just ‘nice to have’) for the sake of public health and that they are are going to be introduced in the least restrictive way possible.
Here are some possibilities of what this might look like:
- Mandated vaccine passports for those entering our country (e.g. analogous to ordinary passports);
- Vaccine passports for those working with vulnerable groups of people (e.g. in the aged care sector or with Indigenous health);
- Mandatory vaccine passports as a temporary measure to allow for easing of lockdown restrictions before we hit 80% double vaccinated (currently the NSW government’s position—although it’s uncertain whether VP’s are to be temporary).
- As soon as practicable, unvaccinated people are given other testing options (e.g. rapid antigen testing) to allow them entry into all public areas.
However, there should be a much higher threshold for mandating vaccine passports for areas that burden people’s ability to live a normal life (e.g. public transport, shopping centres, churches).
Again, to labour the point, this is not a clear-cut Scriptural issue. It’s disputable.
Other Christians are free to disagree with me: some more conservative brothers argue that vaccine passports cross a dangerous line when it comes to personal freedoms. Others are happy with the concept of vaccine passports, as long as they’re managed in the least restrictive way possible (e.g. they don’t prevent people from participating in essential activities).
4. What About non-biblical Conscience Objections to Vaccine Passports?
When it comes to non-religious objections to vaccine passports, we can make the following points:
- Conscience—whether religious or otherwise—is never ‘inviolate’. That is, God authorises Government to violate religious conscience in some instances (law and order is a clear cut case), but arguably in other cases deemed necessary for the common good (e.g. lockdown restrictions/vaccine passports for the protection of the vulnerable in the community). Thus, Christians should not argue from the Bible that ‘all government restrictions against a person’s conscience are always bad.’
- By way of Biblical principle, historical wisdom, and international law, Government should demonstrate that those restrictions are necessary, and are done in the least restrictive way possible.
Thus, a reasonable outcome is that a government comes to the difficult conclusion that it is necessary to protect public health through vaccine passports. In that case, it should seek to accommodate people’s conscientious objections as much as possible (e.g. by not forcing them to get vaccinated, providing other means of testing if possible). And yet, it will probably mean that the unvaccinated will have to bear the burden of restrictions, for the sake of the wider community.
It’s not a perfect solution, because we don’t live in a perfect world. In the words of Christian Legal expert Patrick Parkinson:
A religious person who has a non-religious objection to vaccination is absolutely entitled to refuse a violation of his or her bodily integrity; but this does not mean that governments and employers are not justified in imposing restrictions to protect others, so long as the restrictions are reasonable.
These are difficult times, and difficult judgments have to be made, respecting people’s right to consent or refuse consent to a medical intervention while doing what is necessary to protect others.
As Parkinson points out, ‘difficult judgements have to be made.’
That’s the world we live in.
First published at akosbalogh.com