Hamilton pastor under fire for providing hundreds of religious COVID-19 vaccine exemptions

A pastor in Hamilton says he has issued hundreds of religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Adrian Ghobrial examines the validity of such exemptions, and the religious, ethical and constitutional considerations surrounding them. 

By Adrian Ghobrial and Meredith Bond

A Hamilton pastor has come under fire for providing what he has said are hundreds of religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, sparking questions whether your faith entitles you to be exempt from vaccine mandates.

Peter Marshall is the pastor at Hamilton’s Kingdom Worship Centre. Marshall posts sermons and talks weekly on his YouTube and Facebook pages. The talks regularly focus on COVID-19, including vaccine certificates and mandates put in place by some businesses.

“This whole idea of this COVID-19 and all that’s going on is to seize control and to give more strength to this one world government as we’ve been sharing for months,” Marshall shared in a YouTube video. He has also encouraged people attending churches that follow COVID-19 public health restrictions and are enforcing a vaccine mandate to join his congregation instead.

Marshall has also said his church organization has been speaking with a law firm about representing parishioners who have lost their jobs because they did not follow COVID-19 restrictions or mandates.

CityNews has learned Marshall recently started giving away religious exemptions to anyone who asks.

“Religious exemption letters, we have written hundreds and hundreds of these now,” Marshall said in a recent sermon. “If you have already requested one, we have them ready for you after service today. We’ll keep getting them out.”

CityNews spoke with Pastor Marshall briefly outside his church and he agreed to answer one question: what is in the Christian faith or any faith that would lead to someone being exempt from the vaccine?

Marshall began by saying he was not against vaccines at all. “We’re not against vaccine. We’re here to support everybody. If somebody chooses to be vaccinated, we love them and support them. If somebody chooses not to be vaccinated, we love and support them as a church as a Christian faith.”

But Marshall believes the Charter of Rights of Freedoms is what allows those of any faith to be exempt.

“I think our Charter of Rights spells that out for religious freedom, of freedom of conscience. And I think that applies to all religions in our country, whether it be the Muslim faith, whether it be the Hindu faith, whether you believe in Judaism or Christianity. It really doesn’t matter,” said Marshall.

“Religious freedom has been the benchmark of our country for years. And because there are people have deep rooted religious beliefs. We’re here to support that, just like we’re here to support the vaccinated. We’re here to support those who have convictions, and because of their conscience, just feel like they can’t take.”

However, the validity of a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine is still being debated.

The Ontario Ministry of Health confirmed with CityNews that only medical exemptions are accepted at the provincial level, but some employers are considering them.

The Toronto District School Board, which has a vaccine mandate for staff, has received hundreds of requests for creed-based exemptions. So far, a spokesperson for the board says it has not accepted any of them.

Professor Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said for a religion-based exemption to be acceptable, it has to be grounded in the doctrine and creed of that faith.

“People that have religious exemptions really should be heard,” he said. “They should speak up, and I think there’s lots of speculation as to what the concerns are.”

During the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the GTA, leaders of many faiths have been involved in local organizing, helping ensure community members were comfortable getting vaccinated, and providing places of worship as locations for vaccination centres.

Some Roman Catholics were initially unsure of the church’s stance on the vaccine, due to the use of stem cells that descended from the genetic material of aborted fetuses in the research and development of some vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, the Vatican issued a statement last year, affirming once again that it was acceptable for Roman Catholics to get such vaccines. Pope Francis himself was vaccinated in January 2021.

Professor Moira McQueen from the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute said in her opinion, there isn’t anything in the Christian faith that would make someone exempt from the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Universally, most people feel they have an obligation to protect life. And so, if there are vaccines that do that, that are effective, then I think most Christians have actually decided that there is absolutely no reason to forego these vaccines,” said McQueen.

“The churches, on the whole, are very pro-vaccine and are pretty eloquent in stating that for over a year now,” she notes. However, some individual church leaders have come out with their own anti-vaccine or mandate stances, sometimes based on a more general idea of Canadians’ rights. Still, McQueen said she didn’t think the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would back up an exemption.

“If all religions were saying that there should be exemptions from vaccines, then the Charter might back up that because it would be a religious stance and be perceived to be,” she explained. “But most Christian denominations are saying there is no problem from a moral point of view. And therefore, there are no exemptions.”

University of Calgary constitutional law professor Howard Kislowicz said if there were a Charter-based court challenge of vaccine mandates citing freedom of religion, the person would have to show “a sincere belief that [the vaccine] has a nexus with religion.”

“They don’t actually have to prove that it’s obligatory in their religious faith to refuse mandates, as long as they can show it’s connected in a meaningful way,” he explained, adding: “they have to be sincere about it.”

“Or is the person objecting to getting a vaccine or participating in the passport program on something other than a religious basis, and they’re just using religion as a kind of a dressing for the claim?” noted the professor.

Kislowicz said this person would also have to show that “the restrictions on their rights was more than trivial.”

He also added that so far, cases surrounding COVID-19 restrictions have been successful. “The governments have mostly been successful in defending their restrictions by showing the limitations they put on people’s freedoms have been within the reasonable limits of a free and democratic society because of the exigencies of a pandemic.”

Bowman said he is concerned about whether Marshall could be misleading his parishioners by offering these exemptions.

“I absolutely would be concerned because if you’re going to go in that direction, you’ve got to have some responsibility for the safety and well being of your parishioners.”

With files from Jessica Bruno

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