Josh Holdenried: COVID vaccine for clergy – why are 43 states ignoring these essential workers?


Everyone agrees essential workers should be prioritized in the coronavirus vaccine rollout. But in 43 states and the District of Columbia, one group of essential workers is being ignored: Clergy.

States must right this wrong immediately to ensure houses of worship can open safely and people in need of religious help get the care and support they deserve.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, clergy of all faiths have been on the front lines, caring for both the spiritual and physical health of their communities.

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They have administered the sacraments, comforted the sick, dying and bereaved, and encouraged their communities to follow state and federal guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19. At every stage, they have proven themselves to be essential workers.

Federal pandemic guidelines acknowledge this fact. Last March, the Department of Homeland Security published guidance listing clergy as “essential critical infrastructure workers,” putting them in the same classification as health care professionals, law enforcement officers, and schoolteachers.

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While this guidance has been updated to help states “support prioritization decisions related to COVID-19 vaccines,” clergy remain classified as essential workers. The Centers for Disease Control also treats clergy as essential workers in its 75-page “playbook,” designed to help states with the vaccine rollout.

Yet as a new report from Napa Legal reveals, the overwhelming majority of states have ignored this guidance, and with it, common sense. There is no partisan rhyme or reason to the states that made this poor decision. They run from New York to Georgia to West Virginia. In California, cannabis workers are prioritized over clergy. In Nevada, casino workers are closer to the front of the line. The seven states doing right by clergy range from Maryland to Alabama to Wisconsin.

The federal guidance is not binding, which explains why so many states and D.C. have gone a different direction. Yet the federal guidance exists for a reason: Clergy play a critical role in society and regularly interact with large numbers of people. They should be able to do their work while protecting themselves and those around them.

When clergy are not prioritized for vaccines, it sends a message to people of faith that their eternal salvation is less important than temporary restrictions.

Some states understand this. For example, in Pennsylvania’s vaccination plan, clergy are specifically covered in the first vaccine cohort if they’re working in hospitals and the second cohort if supporting houses of worship.

In hospitals, clergy are present to provide sacraments such as the anointing of the sick and last rites to the dying. They should not be at risk of contracting the coronavirus or spreading it. Similarly, clergy in houses of worship should be protected while leading services, conducting baptism, and other key functions. So should their flocks.

When clergy are not prioritized for vaccines, it sends a message to people of faith that their eternal salvation is less important than temporary restrictions.

What are officials in the other 43 states and D.C. thinking? It’s hard not to sense a hostility to religion or believe religion is being treated as an afterthought. That’s especially true after the past year, when state and local authorities frequently applied double standards and discriminatory enforcement against churches and religious organizations.

The Supreme Court eventually intervened, stating that some aggressive restrictions on religious services “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” When clergy are excluded from timely vaccines, religious liberty is hurt again.

Shockingly, many states that don’t recognize clergy as essential are using them to legitimize and promote vaccinations. For example, Nevada’s vaccination playbook includes faith-based organizations in its list of “community-level trusted institutions” where officials are encouraged to set up vaccination sites. It also lists “faith leaders” in the category of “trusted sources” who can help “educate about vaccine recommendations and availability and to address hesitancy.”

Yet Nevada explicitly excludes clergy from the list of essential workers eligible for the vaccine. It shows a concerning trend after the governor’s 2020 decision to reopen casinos while keeping restrictions in place for houses of worship.

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Clergy are essential, in every sense of the word. The seven states that recognize this reality are right. The 43 states and D.C. that do not should change their policies, immediately. Nationwide, clergy must be explicitly listed in the initial phases of vaccination plans. States should then engage in public messaging that clarifies clergy as essential workers and where they can be vaccinated.

Whatever their faith tradition, clergy should be able to safely continue their pastoral duties during a time when their work is needed most.

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