Can Churches Require COVID-19 Vaccinations?
Like many United Church of Christ Local Churches, First Congregational Church has been holding online worship services since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March of 2020. Recently it has held a few outdoor worship services, but with autumn and cooler weather just around the corner, and the ready availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the church is considering resuming in-person worship. Several members of First Congregational’s consistory want to require church members to prove that they have been vaccinated before allowing them to attend in-person worship. Others question whether this is legal, and even if it is legal, whether it is a good idea.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 vaccines are safe, and effective at preventing severe disease and death from COVID-19, including the Delta variant. The vaccine is a significant tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19. In general, churches can legally require their members to be vaccinated, and to provide proof of vaccination, before attending in-person worship. It is a decision for each United Church of Christ church to make according to its own governance procedures. While the availability of a FDA-approved vaccine is a factor to be considered in returning to in-person worship, not everyone can receive the vaccine. Remember that the COVID-19 vaccine is only available to adults and children who are twelve and older. At the time this article is being written, the vaccine is not available to children under the age of twelve. The vaccine may also not be an option for people with certain medical conditions. There is a good chance that because of these factors not everyone in the congregation can be vaccinated. The church should also consider how it will handle visitors who may not be vaccinated.
If a church decides to require that its members be vaccinated, it should review state and local privacy laws and draft a policy that safeguards members’ vaccination information if it is collected by the church. While churches, in their traditional ministries, are not covered entities under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), churches should always be attentive to the privacy of any personal and health information of their members, including whether a member has been vaccinated.
Churches also raise the question of whether they should require their volunteers and employees to be vaccinated, even if they are not requiring it of members. Many churches have volunteers serving in church nurseries, as Sunday School teachers, in food pantries, or in other ministries that may expose the volunteers or those being served to COVID-19. Each church will need to assess the risk and make its own determination of whether to require its volunteers to be vaccinated; a written policy should be drafted similar to the one discussed above for members.
Churches can also require their employees to be vaccinated; churches considering such a requirement should consult with a local attorney to ensure that the requirement meets state and local laws, as well as federal laws if applicable. The church will need to ensure it follows an interactive process for employees requesting exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Additionally, at the time this article is being written, several states have passed or are considering legislation limiting the right of an employer to require an employee to receive the vaccine. Employee health information should be safeguarded in accordance with state and federal law.
Regardless of whether a church requires its members to be vaccinated, a church that returns to in-person worship should continue to follow all CDC and state COVID-19 protocols, taking into consideration those who cannot be vaccinated. If your church cannot meet these requirements yet, it may not be time for your church to hold in-person worship. The Insurance Board has a helpful training video that walks churches through the practical considerations of returning to in-person worship. Every church should have policies and procedures in place that cover health and safety protocols related to COVID-19, including protocols for members, volunteers, and employees. Train the folks who are subject to these protocols to ensure compliance. Finally, talk to your insurer to develop an understanding of your church’s exposure to liability for a COVID-19 claim. Whether to require vaccines and whether to resume in-person worship are complex decisions that should only be made after careful consideration.
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