Nova Scotia

Halifax pastor says religious freedom doesn't mean breaking COVID-19 rules

Pastor AJ Thomas of the Deep Water Wesleyan Church says there's nothing in the Bible discouraging medicine.

Pastor AJ Thomas says it's important to protect others and get the vaccine if possible

AJ Thomas says most of the ministers he knows are more concerned about following the public health rules, rather than trying to flout them. (Lacey Hill Photography)

Questions around vaccine hesitancy and religion are rising in Nova Scotia, after an Amherst pastor said three people dying after a COVID-19 spike linked to their church event was part of God's plan.

Public health officials have said more than 100 people attended the multi-day faith gathering hosted last month by the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, and were not asked to show proof of vaccination — a violation of public health orders.

Pastor AJ Thomas is the lead pastor at the Deep Water Wesleyan Church in Halifax's North End. He did not attend the Amherst gathering and is not part of that community. 

CBC Information Morning's Portia Clark spoke with Thomas about what the Bible says about medical interventions like vaccines, and what public health guidelines should be, ahead of Wednesday's provincial update with Dr. Robert Strang.

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you make of the pastor at the heart of this case, telling his congregation that what happened after that gathering is unfortunate, but part of God's plan? 

There's a certain school of theological thought within Christianity that kind of attributes everything that happens to God's plan, and I believe that's kind of where this guy lands. 

But I think that what's clear to us as followers of Jesus, biblically, is that our call is to love our neighbours and do everything we can to try to care for those around us — particularly the most vulnerable. 

For me, I think it's maybe a little bit of an abdication of responsibility when our actions create negative effects or health issues, for other people to blame that on God's plan or to say, you know, "Oh, this is how he wanted it to turn out."

Are you hearing about or seeing people in congregations or religious gatherings who aren't vaccinated, or who don't want to follow protocols? 

There's people, I think, kind of throughout our society, in different areas who aren't comfortable, at least not yet, with being vaccinated. I don't know that there's a particularly higher number in church.

I'm friends with dozens of pastors in our city and across the province, and the conversations that I have with them are all around, "How do we make sure we're following all these appropriate protocols? How are we making sure people are staying masked?"

It's not part of our training to run a public health program, but we've been learning on the fly and using the very best we can to be compliant, and to play by the rules. My experience has been that, as opposed to people flaunting restrictions.

We heard from a doctor who says that some people are saying to him that God doesn't want them to put anything foreign in their body. What do you make of that? 

That's not a thing I've ever heard of within any sort of mainstream Christianity. That's the only religious area where I would have any sort of significant expertise or insight. 

Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

I don't see anything anywhere in scripture, or in the history of Christian theology and thought, that would imply medicine or medical intervention are bad or contrary to God's will. In fact, the Gospel of Luke was written by a guy who was a doctor. He was a physician. I think God's given us brains and we can figure out how to do things with those brains that alleviate suffering, and I think that's a positive thing. 

So what's your sense of why some people are saying getting vaccinated is against their religion? 

I think there's a chunk of people in any sort of subgroup, any sort of subculture within our society, that are vaccine hesitant. 

I don't think that people who have a religious worldview are somehow more prone to that, but I do think that those who have that kind of more religious worldview tend to couch that objection in religious terms. This is just my sense, but it's a pre-existing apprehension and they're trying to find justification for it, and they find that religiously. 

I see the same thing with people who think that the vaccine is going to give them 5G internet. That's not a religious thing, that's maybe people who are worried about technology tend to put that objection in that framework.

Have you felt the need to address the COVID-19 pandemic and public health measures with your own congregation? 

Certainly we have to address them regularly in terms of helping people to understand what the restrictions are and regulations that are on our own gatherings, so that people can follow those. Those have shifted and changed and morphed throughout the pandemic and so there's pretty frequent communication around that. 

Are you anticipating perhaps Dr. Strang will make church and religious services not essential anymore? Do you think it should stay essential?

Yeah, I do. I think that as it stands right now, those core weekly religious gatherings as an exemption makes sense. Then our current structure, that any additional non-essential stuff requires proof of vaccination, makes a lot of sense. 

What you see with the situation in Amherst is not an example of our current protocols failing us: it's an example of a lack of enforcement around those protocols. I would rather see enforcement of the current protocols stepped up, rather than penalize everyone by making it even harder for us to do what we do.

With files from Information Morning