Why we need to work with houses of worship on COVID-19 vaccinations

Faith-based organizations are familiar to many, and countless religious leaders are enthusiastic about helping Americans get vaccinated.

Diane and Jack Leahy, of Miami Lakes, Florida, receive the second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at St. Patrick Catholic Church on March 1, 2021, in Miami Beach, Florida.  Miami Beach faith leaders and the Fire Department have joined resources to make vaccines available to older residents.  (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

(RNS) — Last week, President Joe Biden announced that we’ll have enough vaccine supply for all American adults by the end of May, months ahead of schedule. The U.S. government is mobilizing thousands of additional vaccinators and vaccine sites, including community health centers and pharmacies.

The president has recognized the power of faith-based organizations to play key roles in this effort too. Houses of worship are pervasive and familiar to many Americans, and religious figures are among the most trusted community leaders. The vast majority of them are enthusiastic about helping the country get vaccinated.

Many clergy are emphasizing that receiving the COVID-19 vaccination is a way of loving your neighbor, a common theological principle. Congregational leaders have made their buildings available as vaccination sites, while also working the phones to sign people up for appointments and providing transportation for those who need it.

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In addition, these leaders are helping quiet fears about the vaccine. Some Americans are far more comfortable getting their shot in a house of worship than in a doctor’s office. Seeing congregational leaders get vaccinated first can further relieve anxiety and be a powerful refutation of baseless conspiracy theories.

Working through houses of worship can also be an effective means of addressing racial inequities. Black and Latino Americans are far more likely to be hospitalized and die of COVID-19, and vaccination disparities are deeply concerning.

For example, more than 40% of Philadelphians are Black, yet this community has reportedly received only about 17% of the more than 129,000 doses administered in the city thus far. With those concerns in mind, the city of Philadelphia and health systems have partnered with houses of worship in predominantly Black neighborhoods to reach community members. Congregations are also often skilled at reaching people who might otherwise be forgotten, including the poor and those who don’t speak English.

Such governmental partnerships are permitted, not prohibited, by the Constitution. The First Amendment rightly requires church-state separation, but that doesn’t mean religious leaders and institutions can’t work with government on shared aims such as promoting public health. Religious leaders see this mission as deeply spiritual. For government, however, that same mission is secular: Helping more Americans get vaccinated protects their health and that of their families and neighbors.

Of course, government officials and their staffs should ensure that they are reaching out to community leaders of all faiths and none, not preferring some religions over others or even religion over nonreligion. The government must not promote religion, including by directly funding religious activities.

But so long as the government avoids such pitfalls, working with faith-based organizations is not only permissible but part of good governance. Indeed, because so many diverse faith communities are enthusiastic about playing helpful roles in vaccination efforts, governmental partnerships with them can be a powerful affirmation of pluralism and unity across differences of background and belief.

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As President Biden has often said, there’s nothing Americans can’t do when we do it together. Governmental partnerships with faith-based organizations can and should be part of the solution to current COVID-19 challenges.

(Melissa Rogers is executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and senior director for faith and public policy in the White House Domestic Policy Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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