Can Churches Require Vaccination for Attendance?

| May 12, 2021

As the COVID-19 vaccination program continues to roll out over the course of 2021, churches may be considering vaccination requirements for attendance at its religious services and events.  This raises the question – is this legal, and if so, what are the possible implications?

In a broad, general answer: yes, churches and ministries can prevent attendees from participating in religious services and ministry activities if he or she has not been vaccinated, with some exemptions.  It has become common during the COVID-19 pandemic for businesses, medical offices, and other public places to inquire about a person’s COVID-19 status.  Screening questions such as whether someone has tested positive for COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms of the virus prior to accessing a facility or entering a business has become routine.  Churches and ministries, like businesses, medical offices and other public places, have the same general right to request health information concerning COVID-19 exposure to reduce the risk of transmission and protect the community.

Inquiring as to vaccination status is akin to questioning whether a person has tested positive for COVID-19 and/or is experiencing symptoms of the virus.  These inquiries are similar, however requiring proof of vaccination may present legal and/or practical concerns.

The COVID-19 virus, the vaccine and the laws and regulations surrounding the pandemic are continuously evolving.  Laws and regulations are being enacted at state and local levels to address the concerns presented by the COVID-19 virus. The efficacy of the vaccine and characteristics of the virus continue to be studied.   This evolution extends to the legality of requiring a vaccination to participate in religious services and events.  The vaccination requirement may need to be revisited as science, laws and regulations develop.

A ministry is generally free to prohibit an individual from attending services or participating in ministry activities if the individual is not willing to comply with the church’s policies. This requirement is subject to practical limitations.  An important consideration is that some individuals may not be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons, religious beliefs or state regulations.  For example, the COVID-19 vaccines have only been approved for individuals over the age of 16. A church implementing vaccine requirements is encouraged to consider how a vaccination policy will be applied in instances where medical, religious or legal reasons preclude an attendee from receiving a vaccination.  Some situations may raise the need to develop reasonable accommodations.

Churches and ministries desirous of mandating vaccinations for in-person attendance must also consider how this requirement is to be satisfied by attendees. “What proof do you ask for?” Vaccination centers currently provide patients with a receipt, however vaccination cards vary depending upon the vaccination site.  There is no set standard for such cards.  The lack of a set standard causes difficulties in recognizing official and policing fraudulent vaccination cards.

Members and attendees of religious services and ministry events may raise privacy and HIPPA concerns regarding the release of personal medical information to the church or ministry. HIPPA laws protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent.  This protective law does not prohibit a church from requesting this information.  Individuals have the option to provide consent.  The collection of medical data also raises concerns over data privacy.  If a church or ministry will compile records of members’ and/or attendees’ vaccination status, it is important to note that health information is considered personal data and therefore it must be protected in a safe and secure location.  A disclosure should be provided to members and attendees to provide notice that the church or ministry is collecting health information and how it will use the information, as part of a privacy policy.

Churches and ministries that decide to require vaccinations should develop a comprehensive plan to thoroughly communicate the policy and its implications to members and attendees.   Notice should be made readily available to explain what is required to participate in person in religious services and events, what proof will be accepted, and what options it has for individuals who cannot meet the new policy.

Category: Law

About the Author ()

Email | Website | Jocelyn Szymanowski is a principle with law firm of Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Baltimore, her J.D. from Tulane University, and holds an LLM in taxation. Her practice focuses on business and non-profit organizations, real estate, tax, and banking. She is the author of Maryland Law of Religious Corporations, the leading text on Maryland Church Law. She was named a Rising Star by Super Lawyers Magazine.