Two evangelical seminaries file lawsuit to block vaccination mandates, citing religious freedom

(RNS) — Two prominent evangelical seminaries are challenging the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate in federal court.

Under new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, employers with more than 100 workers must require those workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The rules, which came into effect in early November, set a deadline for such vaccinations in January.

Attorneys for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary — both located in Kentucky — filed a motion Friday (November 5) in the United States Court of Appeals for the 6and Circuit alleging that the rules violate the religious freedom of seminaries.

The schools are represented by lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, a major Christian nonprofit that often promotes conservative causes. The group also filed similar lawsuits against other Christian employers this week.

ADF senior counsel Ryan Bangert said the vaccine rules interfere with the seminars’ primary mission, which is to train future ministers.

“The government does not have the authority to unilaterally treat unvaccinated employees as workplace hazards or compel employers to become vaccine commissioners, and we call on the 6th Circuit to end this immediately” , Bangert said in a statement. “We are honored to represent these two theological seminaries at this critical time and to help ensure that they can continue to serve their students and communities without government interference.”

Asbury, a multi-denominational seminary linked to Methodist churches, has 1,721 students, according to data from the Association of Theological Seminaries. Southern, a Southern Baptist school, has 3,390 students.

Albert “Al” Mohler, president of Southern, said the two schools had “no choice but to push back against this government intrusion into matters of conscience and religious belief.”

“It is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power,” Mohler said in a statement.

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Mohler has praised the COVID-19 vaccine in the past.

At a Friday press conference, Mohler said he had been vaccinated and encouraged others to get vaccinated. He said the Biden administration’s rules are turning seminaries into weapons of the federal government, charged with enforcing government rules.

“The most important issue here for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is religious freedom. And on that we take a stand,” he said.

Boyce College on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky on November 29, 2018. RNS Photo by Adelle M. Banks

Mohler said the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which has more than 300 employees, has no official position on vaccines and also noted that Southern Baptist churches are divided on the issue of vaccines. He also repeated his concern that the mandate is a distraction from the mission of the seminary and changes the relationship between the school and its students.

“This, I believe, is a form of government coercion, turning a religious institution into a form of government coercion, which we must resist,” he said.

Southern’s website includes a set of COVID-19 policies for the school, which includes details on how to get vaccinated.

“COVID-19 vaccine is strongly encouraged for all Southern Seminary and Boyce College family members,” those policies state. “Those who have questions can consult their personal physician.”

Asbury’s website also recommends the COVID-19 vaccination.

The petition filed by both seminaries asks the 6th Circuit to block execution of the warrant while the petition is pending. David Cortman, vice president of US litigation at ADF, said the group had broader concerns about the mandate, saying OSHA overstepped its authority.

“OSHA doesn’t have the authority to release this on anyone’s behalf,” he told a news conference.

COVID-19 vaccines have become increasingly controversial among white evangelical Christians. A September survey from Pew Research found that four in 10 white evangelicals said they were unvaccinated, the highest total among any religious category.

At least one prominent evangelical leader — Dan Darling, former vice president of the National Religious Broadcasters — lost his job after publicly encouraging evangelicals to consider getting vaccinated.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which focuses on protecting the religious freedom of Christians, has also represented churches that have challenged COVID-19 restrictions on large group meetings during the pandemic.

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Barry F. Howard