A U.S. Coast Guard officer and devout Catholic has filed suit to prevent being forced to receive a vaccination derived from the lung of an aborted child after a higher ranking officer disputed his understanding of church theology.
The Alliance Defense Fund filed a complaint last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Healy, charging the government with using its own arbitrary judgment of what constitutes Catholic theology. The complaint says the government permitted religious exemptions to others, effectively discriminating against Healy’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Healy’s request for religious exemption cited a 2005 letter from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life that condemned the use of cell lines from abortions in vaccines and supported Catholics’ right to refuse or accept the medicines.
In May 2007, Capt. Brent Pennington rejected Healy’s request, arguing Catholic teaching “does not state that these immunizations are against the religious tenets of the Catholic Church.”
“Please note that the refusal to be vaccinated or failure to comply with a lawful order to be vaccinated is a violation of Coast Guard regulations,” Pennington wrote Healy. “Any member who refuses to be vaccinated or fails to comply with a lawful order to be vaccinated is subject to military proceedings under [the Uniform Code of Military Justice] or other appropriate administrative proceedings at the unit commander’s discretion.”
All members of the Coast Guard must be vaccinated against a broad spectrum of diseases. The requirement for all active-duty personnel to be inoculated against Hepatitis A was instituted in May 2006. While a vaccine derived from animal sources is awaiting FDA approval, the immunization procedure currently available in the U.S. is based on lung cells taken from an elective abortion performed at 14 weeks approximately 40 years ago.
“Those who lay their life on the line to defend our shores are entitled to the same religious freedoms as anyone else,” said ADF attorney Matt Bowman, according to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. “Members of the U.S. military should never be forced to make an unconstitutional choice between honoring their country and honoring their faith.”
Healy, a long-time opponent of abortion, is listed on a Coast Guard website as the contact for an October 2006 pro-life awards banquet held in Glen Burnie, Md. He is stationed at the Coast Guard facility in Alexandria, Va.
ADF argues that Pennington’s refusal of a religious exemption amounts to a governmental definition of Roman Catholic theology.
The letter submitted by Healy from the Pontifical Academy for Life was prompted by an inquiry from a Florida Catholic group concerned that the church had no formal statement in opposition to such vaccines – a fact that could be used by schools to deny religious exemptions for Catholics who refused to vaccinate their children.
The academy’s paper, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses,” was published in May 2005 after having been approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
While the document condemned “every form of formal cooperation” – the original abortion 40 years ago and the development of the vaccine – as well as the “passive material cooperation” of those marketing it four decades on, it distinguished the “very remote mediate material cooperation” of doctors and parents who, through lack of options, resort to the medicines for reasons of health.
“We are responsible for all people, not just ourselves,” Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, a medical doctor and official at the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Catholic News Service.
“If it is a question of protecting the whole population and avoiding death and malformation in others, that is more important,” he said.
According to Debi Vinnedge, head of the Catholic group Children of God for Life, “members of the Lutheran Church” are more likely to be given exemptions for their children in Florida schools, because their denomination has “a stronger statement” concerning the immorality of using such vaccines.
“We need a stronger statement” if Catholics are to get the exemption, she said.
While the academy’s ambiguity and failure to forge a stronger statement may have contributed to Pennington’s denial, he also cited the opinion of the National Catholic Bioethics Center that receiving such a vaccine does not constitute cooperation with abortion.
Healy’s attorney notes his client never cited NCBC, a non-authoritative Catholic group, and argues Pennington, in his governmental capacity, was defining what constitutes orthodox Catholic theology.
It’s “most troubling that the government would decide some religions get exemptions and others do not based on their own arbitrary judgments,” said ADF’s Bowman.
“We asked the court to step in because, at any moment, he could be ordered to be vaccinated,” Bowman told the Washington Times.
“He is not asking for special treatment – he is simply saying the Coast Guard cannot disfavor his religion over the beliefs of others when it offers religious exemptions,” Bowman said.
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