San Diego Diocesan Schools to Accept Personal-Belief Exemption From Student COVID Vaccine Mandate

Only California has required children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend school.

‘We hope that this course of action by the diocese balances the need to protect the health of our students, teachers and staffs with the rights of parents to decide issues vital to their children,’ stated a Nov. 1 letter from the Diocese of San Diego outlining acceptance of a personal-belief exemption.
‘We hope that this course of action by the diocese balances the need to protect the health of our students, teachers and staffs with the rights of parents to decide issues vital to their children,’ stated a Nov. 1 letter from the Diocese of San Diego outlining acceptance of a personal-belief exemption. (photo: Shutterstock)

Catholic schools in the Diocese of San Diego will accept “any” personal-belief exemption for the coronavirus vaccine once California’s mandate for schoolchildren goes into effect. 

“In implementing any legal mandate for COVID vaccinations that includes a personal-belief exemption, the Catholic schools of the Diocese of San Diego will accept any parents [sic] request for exemption as valid,” said a Nov. 1 letter to school pastors and principals from the diocese’s Offices for Schools and Communications & Public Affairs. 

“The consensus among legislative analysts with whom we have spoken is that it is unlikely that the legislature will give legislative approval for a mandate without a personal-belief exemption,” the letter said. 

On Oct. 1, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all children enrolled in public, charter or private schools age 12 and older would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, albeit with personal-belief exemptions. This mandate gos into effect January 2022. 

In California, a 2019 law prohibits religious exemptions and personal-belief exemptions for standard childhood vaccinations, including measles, rubella, polio and inoculations against seven other diseases. Only medical exemptions are allowed for these cases. Prior to this policy, parts of the state had childhood vaccination rates comparable to developing countries. 

While religious and personal-belief exemptions are not allowed for fully-approved childhood vaccines, California law requires that any additional vaccine that is added to the list of mandatory vaccinations without legislative approval must allow for personal-belief exemptions. Newsom did not go through the California Legislature when mandating the coronavirus vaccine for students. 

Presently, the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech is available for children age 5 and up, due  to an emergency-use authorization. 

The mandate has proven divisive even ahead of its implementation, said the diocese. 

“The question of COVID mandates divides our parent communities as it divides our societies,” the letter said. “We hope that this course of action by the diocese balances the need to protect the health of our students, teachers and staffs with the rights of parents to decide issues vital to their children.” 

A personal-belief exemption from a vaccine requirement is different than a religious exemption, as a personal belief is not based on a religious creed. Presently, 44 states allow for some sort of religious exemption; 15 of those states also permit personal-belief exemptions. 

Only California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia do not allow religious exemptions from childhood vaccine mandates. 

Only California has required children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend school. Conversely, 17 states have passed laws or have issued directives prohibiting educational institutions from mandating their students receive the coronavirus vaccine. 

For Catholics, religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine are typically not available. Many Catholic leaders, including Pope Francis, have explicitly promoted the vaccine, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated that reception of the vaccines is licit. 

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that although vaccines with a remote connection to abortion are “morally acceptable,” it also stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and, “therefore, it must be voluntary.” 

The congregation acknowledged “reasons of conscience” for those refusing a vaccine, while at the same time noting: “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

In the Diocese of San Diego, Bishop Robert McElroy explicitly ordered his priests to refuse any requests for a religious accomodation to the mandate. 

In August, Bishop McElroy said that he had received several inquiries from priests regarding “a declaration written by the Colorado Catholic Conference on the issue of vaccinations and Catholic teaching.”

“The purpose of this declaration seems to be to elicit from the pastor a public indication that a specific parishioner’s decision to refuse the COVID vaccine is rooted in and supported by authentic Catholic faith,” said Bishop McElroy in a letter to the priests of his diocese on Aug. 11. 

To do so would be “particularly problematic,” as the Holy See did not raise objections to the vaccines and even said receiving one would be “laudatory,” he said.  

Said Bishop McElroy, “Thus the pastor is being asked not to endorse what the Church does not teach on this question, but rather what individuals might discern as their chosen pathway even when that pathway is built upon a rejection of the Church’s objective teaching on the morality of the COVID vaccine.” 

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