Massachusetts University School Official Rejects All Vaccine Religious-Exemption Requests

Lawyers representing the Bay State have backed the official’s stance that Catholics can’t claim conscience exemptions, based on his own ‘holistic’ assessment of Church teaching on the issue.

An aerial view of City Hall and the downtown district of Lowell, Massachusetts, is shown. One student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Hunter Harris, and a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston sued the state-college system when their appeal for a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination was denied.
An aerial view of City Hall and the downtown district of Lowell, Massachusetts, is shown. One student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Hunter Harris, and a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston sued the state-college system when their appeal for a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination was denied. (photo: Shutterstock/Wangkun Jia)

BOSTON — A public university official in Massachusetts has been turning down all requests from Catholic students for a religious exemption from the school’s coronavirus vaccine requirement, based on his research into Catholic teachings.

The methods of Shawn De Veau, interim vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston, have drawn criticism from some expressing concerns about a government official determining what a religion does and does not teach.

In late July, two students in the state-run University of Massachusetts system — which has five schools that operate somewhat independently — filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston seeking access to their campuses without having to get vaccinated for the coronavirus.

To try to limit spread, all five schools are requiring all students who come to campus to get vaccinated for the coronavirus unless they receive a medical exemption or a religious exemption. Otherwise, the students can take online classes, which have a more limited selection than regular classes.

One student, Hunter Harris, a rising junior at UMass Lowell, sued because he doesn’t have confidence in the vaccines. The other plaintiff, Cora Cluett, a rising senior at UMass Boston, said getting the vaccine would violate her religious beliefs.

De Veau described his approach to handling religious-exemption appeals in a declaration for the court.

“When reviewing students’ appeals, I engage in a holistic process: I review the student’s request, research the faith tradition on which they are basing their request, and respond to the students based on my research. If students send further replies after receiving my response, I engage in phone or email conversations with them. My process for reviewing appeals is to engage in an interactive process to discuss the student’s specific circumstances and determine if the exemption is based on a sincerely held religious belief,” De Veau wrote Aug. 16.

On July 26, De Veau by email denied an appeal from Cluett. He quoted two statements from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — including one that says “inoculation with the new COVID-19 vaccines in these circumstances can be morally justified” — to conclude that Catholics have no religious basis for rejecting the vaccine.

“Given these two statements from leaders of the Church … I do not see that there are any specific religious tenets that would prevent someone of the Roman Catholic faith from receiving a vaccine, if they chose to do so,” De Veau wrote.


Establishment Cause Violation?

Lawyers for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state-run university, have argued the school administrator was right to plumb the student’s supposed Catholic faith.

“[I]t was entirely appropriate for De Veau to have juxtaposed Cluett’s stated association with Roman Catholicism with the actual tenets of that religion,” the state’s lawyers, Richard Weitzel and Christine Fimognari, wrote in a motion Aug. 17.

The state’s motion cites a 2010 U.S. district-court case in New York state (Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools) in which a federal judge decided that a mother who expressed a vague version of pantheism (seeing God in everything) had “genuine and sincere beliefs” against allowing her child to be vaccinated, but that they were “not religious beliefs.”

But a prominent constitutional scholar contacted by the Register said the university’s actions in the current Massachusetts case are troubling.

Laurence Tribe, a retired Harvard Law School professor who has frequently argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, said he believes UMass Boston “has clearly violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Tribe said the government is within its rights to make no exceptions for religion when it comes to rules governing health and safety — but that once it allows for religious exemptions to a rule, the government can’t be the decider on what the religion teaches.

“It’s one thing to say that our general rules allow no religious exceptions and quite another to say, ‘If the Catholic faith truly taught what you say it does, then you’d be fine,’” Tribe said. “That’s a government official interpreting a religion. That’s clearly unconstitutional and deeply offensive.”


Relevant Precedents

Tribe cited a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court case, Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, in which a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who worked for a steel foundry sought unemployment benefits after he quit his job because he was transferred to a department that made turrets for military tanks — work he said he couldn’t do because it violated his religious beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to grant the unemployment benefits, saying that the guarantee of free exercise of religion “is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect” and that 

“Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”

“A person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program,” the court said, adding later, “Where the state conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs, a burden upon religion exists. While the compulsion may be indirect, the infringement upon free exercise is nonetheless substantial.”

The 1981 Indiana case has not come up in the UMass Boston case.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, both on the UMass Boston case and on Tribe’s constitutional argument. The spokesman referred questions to the university. A spokesman for the university could not be reached for comment.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said various federal and state court decisions make it clear that a government official has no business trying to act as an authority on religion. “It is not up to a government entity to validate the sectarian legitimacy of a citizen’s sincerely held religious beliefs based on some denominational check list of approved creedal positions,” Doyle told the Register by email. “America has a long legal tradition of reasonable accommodation for conscientious objection. While recognizing the possibility of abuse through frivolous applications, the burden of proof ought to rest with the state, while the benefit of the doubt ought to be afforded to the individual.”


Judge Rules Against the Students

On Aug. 27, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit of the two students. They are considering an appeal.

Judge Denise Casper, an Obama appointee, found that the schools do not evaluate religious exemption requests “in a way that burdens some religions but not others” or in a way that violates Cluett’s right to exercise her religious beliefs — which, it turns out, aren’t specifically Catholic.

While applying for an exemption, Cluett never directly stated her religious denomination, though she mentioned receiving religious education and sacraments in the Catholic Church when she was growing up. That led school officials to conclude that she was a Catholic. 

Yet that’s inaccurate, according to her lawyer, Ryan McLane.

“Cora Cluett isn’t even Catholic. She was raised going to CCD. Her grandmother was Catholic. She is of the Christian faith. But she is not a Catholic,” McLane said in a telephone interview.

Court papers suggest that Cluett didn’t respond by email to a request from the administrator to confirm or correct his understanding, and a conversation between the two never took place, apparently because she wanted her lawyer to be on the call.

At one point, on June 23, Cluett described her objection to the coronavirus vaccination this way:

“These vaccinations are in direct conflict with my sincerely held religious beliefs. God has given me control over my body to live according to his plan. I have considered this deeply and at length and have come to the firm conviction that subjecting myself to a vaccine that I do not have satisfactory faith in would be a violation of God’s intentions for my life.”

Cluett could not be reached for comment for this story. De Veau, the interim vice chancellor, referred questions to a university spokesman, who could not be reached for comment.


Catholic Conscience Considerations

Even though Cluett isn’t a Catholic, the case has potential implications for Catholics who object to the coronavirus vaccines on moral ground, given that De Veau asserted that there are no Catholic “religious tenets” preventing a Catholic from receiving a vaccine.

However, the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines were tested against cell lines based on the cells of a fetus aborted in 1973. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was produced using cell lines based on the cells of a fetus aborted in 1985.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has given the green light to taking all three, but the USCCB has said that Catholics, when possible, should choose the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because the Johnson & Johnson version is more closely connected to abortion.

The Church teaches that abortion is unjustified taking of a human life and a grave sin. But the bishops’ conference has reasoned that the vaccines’ connection to abortion, though regrettable, is sufficiently remote to make taking them morally acceptable.

Some Catholics, however, say their conscience won’t permit them to take any of the vaccines because of their connection to abortion. And although Catholics are generally supposed to follow Church guidance, the Church also teaches that everyone must follow his properly formed conscience.

In its December 2020 assessment that found it was licit to use COVID-19 vaccines that utilized abortion tissues in their manufacturing and/or testing, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith emphasized that generally vaccinations should be voluntary, and therefore allow for objections on the grounds of conscience.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education and ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said there may not be one simple Yes-or-No answer across the board for Catholics when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine.

“Those who discern and decide to get vaccinated can do so in good conscience, even though there may be a distant association of the vaccine with cell lines derived from abortions. Those who discern not to receive a vaccine can likewise do so in good conscience,” Father Pacholczyk told the Register by email, adding that in some cases unvaccinated Catholics may have to take other measures to avoid spreading the virus.

“In all of this, what is key is to seek to form our conscience carefully and correctly in light of Church teachings, so we become ready and able to make good prudential judgments,” Father Pacholczyk said.

A number of U.S. bishops, including Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, the chairman of the pro-life committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have recently issued statements emphasizing that while coronavirus vaccines are morally licit and Catholics should be encouraged to take them, the right of Catholics to refuse to take the vaccine on grounds of conscience should be upheld.

Archbishop Naumann said in an Aug. 26 statement, “Bishops, priests and the entire Church should support the right and duty of Catholics to obey their consciences.” 


Matt McDonald is 

the editor of 

New Boston Post.