The ban on vaccination against Governor Abbott’s COVID-19 tramples on my religious practice

Like me, many United Methodists in Texas are living in a state of constant agitation because of our Governor Greg Abbott’s actions regarding reasonable public health practices regarding the coronavirus pandemic. His latest action — an executive order “prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccination against COVID-19 for employees or clients,” according to the Texas Tribune — particularly angers me because it interferes with my religious practice.

Although I am fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and hospitalization rates for coronavirus patients are declining in Dallas where I live, I felt compelled to leave the celebration of the 75th anniversary of my monastic association, the Order of St. Luke, happening this week. This is because I am 68 years old with chronic health conditions at high risk for Delta variant coronavirus exposure while traveling by closed plane for more than two hours from Dallas to Pittsburgh where it retreats.

Governor Abbott’s action upsets me because:

  • CDC guidelines call for avoidance of exposure for more than 45 minutes indoors with little or no ventilation. The cabin of a pressurized plane seems to me to be a great example of such a dangerous space, not to mention accidental encounters with other people at the airport. By banning the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, Governor Abbott directly exposes me and everyone else to coronavirus infections from people who have resisted health care immunization that has been shown to work against COVID-19.
  • The Order of St. Luke, an ecumenical monastic association dedicated to liturgical science and sacramental life founded by Methodist leaders in 1946, constitutes my “disciplinary community,” that is, the place where my faith is nurtured. When I am with our OSL brothers and sisters on our vacation, I can spend my devotion to God in almost constant prayer in a loving community. If I had more beliefs about vaccination protection among my companions, I might risk exposure because I am with my beloved siblings, which is true “divine fellowship”.

I feel confident that I am not the only thoughtful united Methodist whose religious practice has been completely disrupted by an 18-month coronavirus pandemic. The complexity of my personal decision only underscores how much life has completely changed in the midst of the COVID-19 world plague. We are now faced with truly eerie numbers so large that we can hardly accept them:

In addition to their own anger, hundreds of united Methodist churches in the United States are fighting over whether to continue personal gatherings and how to do so safely in accordance with the three basic rules of the united Methodist faith: do no harm, do good, and attend to God’s ordinances. By serving on the coronavirus working group in my community, I can confirm firsthand the hardships and complexity of making decisions about personal gatherings. Just a few considerations we struggled with:

  • How do we protect parliamentary children under the age of 18 who do not qualify for vaccination?
  • How do we improve our virtual worship experience to fully engage online participants in the congregation?
  • How we provide Holy Communion to those who cannot risk coming to personal worship (no, our congregation does not adhere to “communion online” because the Eucharist is conceived as an act within a religious community).

I hope this background of life with a pandemic will make my short-sighted decision by Governor Abbott outraged. I’m grateful to be able to see some of OSL’s actions via Facebook live this week, but that doesn’t completely replace a face-to-face spiritual retreat. I am tired of the politicization of the public health crisis we are going through and I am sorry that any criticism of public policies is automatically put as a party issue instead of an attempt to create the common good. I want people to come to their senses, respect the medical science of the coronavirus, and join the community’s efforts to stop this death plague.

Until that last wish happens, like many united Methodists and other Christians I know, I stick to my daily prayers for strength, courage, and comfort. Only my firm belief that Jesus Christ is enduring a coronavirus pandemic with us prevents me from collapsing in despair. Certainly Governor Abbott and other politicians like him, by insisting on “personal freedom” over the health of the community, stand in direct opposition to God’s intention for the good of all people.

I pray that Governor Abbott will stop disturbing public health, but in the meantime his edicts are not helping. No, not at all.

Cynthia B. Astle is the editor of United Methodist Insight, which she founded in 2011.

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