GR Catholic Diocese: petitioning religious medical freedom from mandates for staff & students.
Dear Bishop Walkowiak, Superintendent Dave Faber & Board of Education Members,
We are writing to you today regarding the current mask mandate made by the Kent County Health Department and potential covid vaccine mandates. We ask that you listen with an open heart as we share and defend why these mandates are an infringement on our religious freedoms. We will be concluding this letter by motioning you to stand and fight for our religious freedoms together with us and for us.
CURRENT MASK MANDATE:
First, we’ll address the significant concern that many of us share regarding the mask mandate in schools for our young children. As parents, we know our children best and their welfare is entrusted to us. The Church teaches that:
“The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.” CCC2221.
“As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds with their own convictions. This right is fundamental. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing the parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise.” CCC2229.
As faithful Catholics, we choose to send our children to Catholic schools because we know that our children will receive an education that affirms and strengthens the faith we practice at home, and that the school will act as a support to our family lives. We expect that our convictions will be upheld and respected. When a school is at odds with the faithful parent’s deeply held convictions, what is it that the Church is asking of these parents?
“Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience.” CCC1782.
According to Aquinas, every conscience binds, even an erring one. This means that if there is something that you believe you should not do (after having taken care to form your conscience as well as you can), even if the Church commands it, then you cannot do it without committing a sin. We are aware that there are exemptions in place for medical reasons,however the vast majority of people who are attempting to obtain a needed exemption are being denied from their physician or school district, or being discriminated against while at school, interfering with the child’s ability to participate in his education. Due to these factors, the faithful are actively being prevented from acting according to their conscience by the very people who promise to uphold personal freedom and choice. Thus, the Church is asking these parents to violate their well-formed consciences and act contrary to their convictions.
Masking can create these and other health problems that manifest physically, emotionally, psychologically, and academically, many of which we have personally experienced within our own families. These may vary from child to child, which begs the importance of individual choice. There can be no circumstance in which a medical intervention can be one size fits all. Each child, each family, each situation, must be taken into account and analyzed individually. Science and experience shows us that there are significant health issues that can be caused or exacerbated by wearing masks (references in links below):
Pub Med.gov National Library of Medicine - Carbon dioxide rebreathing in respiratory protective devices: influence of speech and work rate in full-face masks
Experimental Assessment of Carbon Dioxide Content in Inhaled Air With or Without Face Masks in Healthy Children A Randomized Clinical Trial
US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health - Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis Physiological and Psychological Effects of Wearing Facemasks and Their Potential Health Consequences.
Corona children studies “Co-Ki”: First results of a Germany-wide registry on mouth and nose covering (mask) in children
Pub Med.gov National Library of Medicine - Short-term skin reactions following use of N95 respirators and medical masks
Pub Med.gov National Library of Medicine - Use of surgical face masks to reduce the incidence of the common cold among health care workers in Japan: a randomized controlled trial
Our schools are able to employ multiple means of mitigating disease spread and illness, and are doing so at effective levels:
With some of these measures, we see obvious benefits. For several reasons, wearing masks, unlike these other equally or more effective measures like social distancing and hand washing, is not a personally cost-free mitigation strategy. This means that wearing a mask is a matter of prudential judgment. Wearing a mask is neither always good nor never good. In conclusion a Catholic school and church cannot, in good conscience, coerce someone to wear a mask or enforce a government's requirement to wear masks.
COVID VACCINE POTENTIAL FUTURE MANDATE:
We know many employers are starting to mandate the covid vaccine. We are concerned that government entities will also be making this the case in the future for school staff and students. Per the health order, the mask mandate “remains in effect until 60 days past the date COVID-19 vaccine is authorized or approved by the FDA and available to persons in pre-kindergarten through grade six”. For parents who have ethical, personal, medical, and scientific concerns with the COVID vaccine, this is especially troubling. As the precedence is now being established that, within our schools, parental choice and prudential judgement are subordinate to the perceived good of the law, we are left wondering what recourse we will have? We will now defend the importance as Catholics Christians to use prudential judgment instead of being bound by far-reaching mandates.
While there are several sources of information regarding the Catholic view of prudential judgment in general, and COVID vaccines in particular, we would like to point out a couple that were valuable in writing this letter. Please review them. One is a podcast from the National Catholic Bioethics Center regarding questions about the COVID vaccines (1). A good understanding of one's rights and responsibilities when it comes to making prudential judgments in general is found in this article, in which several theologians weigh in on the topic. Another is a video which includes references from both Church doctrine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding religious exemptions (2). The third is an article sharing that, while a Catholic may discern to get the COVID vaccine, it should never be mandated (3).
Of particular note is the reference to a document from the USCCB titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, which includes:
33. Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as armed conflict, housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on such specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings.Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.[emphasis mine]
From the Church's point of view, medical interventions such as vaccines are a matter of prudential judgment on the part of each individual – or parent in the case of a child – because they are neither always good nor never good. There are benefits and risks involved with using them. This cost-benefit must be viewed through the lens of the individual involved. Considerations include, but are not limited to, the supposed efficacy, the safety history and reported side effects, and any potential contraindications such as an allergy to particular vaccine ingredients. In addition, the diseases they claim to prevent vary in severity depending on many factors, not limited to one's age, general level of health or even specific lifestyle situations. One's propensity to disease also varies depending on their age, living, employment, education or transportation situation, the prevalence of the pathogen in the community at any given point in time, and the pathogenicity of said pathogen. There are ethical concerns involved with the development, testing and production of some vaccines wherein receiving it, one may give tacit approval of the unethical process, which itself can vary in gravity depending on how dependent the vaccine is on the process, as well as the remoteness of the cooperation with the evil act that gave rise to the ethical concern. Finally, there are potential concerns for the well-being of others should one get infected, ranging from the danger it might pose to a vulnerable person that one lives or works with, to the general concern of a dangerous pathogen potentially spreading through a population unchecked. The virulence of the virus may also be a factor in these concerns.
It is the right and responsibility of a Catholic to consider all of these factors and assign an appropriate weight to each one of them before judging whether one or one's children should receive or avoid a particular vaccine.The implication all this has for someone in the Church who has taken a position on the general advisability of a particular vaccine or group of them is that, while they may continue to advocate for or against them, it is a precarious position to take, especially for those involved in decision making or implementing school or other institution-related policies. If those policies were to actually impact someone's decision to get one of these vaccines or not, or otherwise deprive someone of their due rights in making such a decision, then they've crossed the line and acted unethically. This concern would also extend to the situation of the government requiring institutions to enforce a policy of mandating a vaccine, whereby materially implementing such a policy would be unethical in the case of Catholic institutions.
“...Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authorities within the limits of the common good and public order.” CCC1788
This does not mean that Catholic institutions must or should completely disregard any such laws or orders from the government or a health department. They would be free to communicate anything that is required of them, to notify parents, parishioners or others, and even indicate that certain vaccines are required of schoolchildren, as they do now. This is allowable, so long as the same process for exempting a child from a particular vaccine is available that many of us have used in other cases for some time, sometimes for the same concerns that we might have about the COVID vaccines.
However, our concern is that one may not be able to obtain an exemption for the covid vaccine, similarly to how currently most are unable to obtain a mask exemption. If the government mandates the covid vaccine, how will the Catholic Diocese ensure that we are able to follow our conscience if, after discernment, an individual decides that for he or she or one’s child, the vaccine is unsuitable for them? Will our right to prudential judgement be protected and will we be able to stay true to our convictions and obey our well-formed consciences?
CURRENT MANDATE & SHORTCOMINGS OF THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK:
As a private education entity, we are asking you to hear us and to do all you can to help fight alongside us for justice, to be a light in the darkness, to work against the forces that threaten us and our freedoms.
You will find the following letter very resourceful. This letter was written with permission for us to use by Kevin Rahe, a Catholic School Parent, who recently wrote and sent this to all Kent County Superintendents including Dave Faber. We now bring this also to the attention of Bishop Walkowiak and the Diocesan Board of Education:
[“I'm writing to you now regarding the recently-issued mask order, the concerns many parents have about the order, and the health department's apparent lack of confidence that the law actually permits such an order for the reason it was issued, its demonstrable lack of respect for the law, as well as its tunnel vision regarding COVID mitigation practices in general.
I am fortunate that while I have children in school, they are all above the grade levels this mask order applies to, and none of their schools are requiring older children to wear masks. I do have two nephews who are affected by this order, whose parents have decided to home school them this year due directly to the issuance of this order. However, my concern is not just who this order immediately affects, but the logic (or lack thereof) behind it and the implications for the future if those who perceive they have the power to issue such orders are not forced to reconcile their decisions with the law.
On Thursday, August 26, a public meeting was held by the county Board of Commissioners (BOC) at DeVos Place regarding the order. I attended this meeting, as I was very interested in hearing what Dr. Adam London, the county's health director who issued the order, had to say about it, as well as the Commissioners' responses and questions and of course the public's comments. In particular, I was keen to hear how Dr. London would be “addressing the legal framework for issuing local public health orders,” which the BOC chair had indicated in an announcement would be part of the meeting, as I was familiar with the statute in question and was having difficulty seeing how this order fit within the limits the law places on such orders.In the remainder of this letter I will be referring to segments of that meeting, which you can view a recording of at the following link:
At the 11-minute mark in the video, Linda Howell, the county's legal counsel, reads the statute that grants health departments the authority to issue emergency orders in response to an epidemic, which is MCL 333.2453. As you can see in the statute, the reasons allowed for issuing orders that go beyond merely prohibiting the gathering of people include insuring, “continuation of essential public health services'' and “enforcement of health laws.” To me, this means something like taking steps necessary to avoid the situation of hospitals being either prevented from operating or so overwhelmed that they cannot provide the services they are expected to perform for the public. Given that at the time of Dr. London's order hospitals both in West Michigan and in all of Michigan as a whole had less than one quarter as many patients testing positive for COVID as they had handled at our prior peak in April, I was curious as to how he was going to argue that this order was necessary to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed or some related or similar crisis, especially since children under 18 years old had never comprised more than 5% of those hospitalized with COVID in Michigan, despite being over 21% of our population. I was shocked, however, when instead of hearing such an explanation, after reading the sentence in the law that prescribes the reasons for which such orders can be issued, counsel added the phrase, “and to mitigate the damage that can be done by that epidemic.” !!! Not only is there no such language in the law, that phrase is so general that were it actually the law, it would allow practically anything to be imposed on anyone for any reason at essentially any time and in any circumstances, at the sole discretion of one person. By enumerating two specific reasons for such orders, I believe that those who originally enacted this statute did not intend such an open-ended authority to issue public health orders to combat an epidemic as Dr. London is presuming he has.
Evidence that Dr. London is acting according to the language invented by counsel rather than what's actually in the statute is found in the conditions given in the order that would cause its expiration, which are, “60 days past the date COVID-19 vaccine is authorized or approved by the Food and Drug Administration and available to persons in pre-kindergarten through grade six, or community transmission for Kent and Ottawa counties are respectively categorized as 'Low' by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least seven consecutive days, or until further notice from the Administrative Health Officer.” None of those conditions or metrics are directly tied to, “continuation of essential public health services” or “enforcement of health laws” as specified in the law. An exchange in stark contrast to counsel's explanation of the order's legal underpinnings occurs at the 53- minute, 30-second mark in the proceeding, at which point County Commissioner Diane Jones asks Dr. London to clarify the exceptions from wearing masks allowed in his order. In response to that question, Dr. London says, “If [legal counsel] Linda has the document in front of her, that would be helpful. I want to make sure we get the language exact,” at which point counsel reads the portion of the order pertaining to exceptions. If Dr. London insists that everyone else reads and understands his language exactly, shouldn't we all be just as insistent that he reads and understands the law exactly?!
In addition to proceeding on a doubtful legal basis, Dr. London was remiss in his duty to listen to public comments about his order, which both the Commission and the public had expected him to do, but which it became apparent (at 3:12:40 in the video) he was not doing before even a third of those who had indicated they wanted to make a public comment had done so. Had he been listening, he would have heard from many parents whose children did have bona fide physiological, emotional or psychological issues with wearing masks, several of whom reported that they could not obtain the sort of exemption the order allows even if their child's issue was serious, because their doctors have been threatened with losing their position and/or license if they grant such exemptions. I personally know parents who are in such a position.
Dr. London also failed to discuss any alternative mitigations, especially ventilation and clean air technologies, despite being specifically asked to do so by Vice-Chair Stan Stek at the beginning of the meeting, which you can hear at the 9-minute mark in the video. This is especially important since the CDC finally acknowledged in May that this virus can spread via tiny airborne aerosols in addition to the larger respiratory droplets we've been told masks can be effective against, making ventilation a much more important factor than previously thought. In fact, the high school some of my children attend replaced their entire air handling system and upgraded their filtration over the summer chiefly to reduce the likelihood of a respiratory virus spreading there. While I'm not aware of any cases of COVID transmission happening there last school year, I (and they) believe that with these changes, the chances of that happening this year are lower than ever before, even with masks not being required. This meeting would have been an excellent opportunity to discuss such strategies, which will have long-term benefits in mitigating not only COVID, but also illnesses caused by other airborne pathogens such as RSV and influenza. Instead, Dr. London continued to focus solely on masks as if they're the most effective and only necessary mitigation.
Finally, I want to explain why I felt compelled to write this letter. There was plenty of news media at this event to catch and report everything I've related here. I pointed out in my own public comment (which you can hear at the 5:08:45 mark in the video) the issue with the health department adding language to the law, so they even knew about that. Yet none of them reported any of this. Instead, they painted those who spoke against this order as merely people upset about something being imposed on them but with no argument against it, which is far from the truth, as you can see.
I urge you to reconsider any ways in which your district may be cooperating with this order, and especially to demand that the health department justify that future actions comport with what is actually in the law before you agree to cooperate with them. Thank you.”]
CONCLUSION & PETITION :
In signing this petition we are saying we do not agree with current or future mask mandates nor do we agree with any potential vaccine mandate made on our Catholic institutions, specific to this letter being Catholic educators, school staff and children within our schools. It is an affront to our religious liberties to demand we act contrary to our well formed conscience.
Respectfully, we ask you as our Bishop, Superintendent, and Board of Education to stand up for our religious rights! Brainstorm with one another and this community about how to find a solution to this problem. Dialogue with the faithful in this and future decision making processes. Allow us as parents to have a seat at this table, and hear our voices. We seek to have open communication and cooperation, not mandates and dictation. Stand up legally if need be as a Catholic institution defending the religious rights of your flock whom you shepherd. Will you set your face like flint and with the strength of God lead us into victory as we battle this giant? Think of how Catholic schools would grow. We’d gain many public school children and currently homeschooled children by setting the bar high and winning this battle for freedom to choose, using prudential judgment over being bound by mandates.
All who have signed this letter & petition (signatures attached) *including just over 200 pen and paper signatures as of 9/14/21 given already personally to the recipents of this letter & petition.
Written by: Sarah R., Valerie K., and featuring large portions of letters previously written by and with permission from Kevin R.