For months, some states have handed down stringent COVID restrictions to houses of worship deemed “nonessential,” leaving those institutions few options save legal recourse to serve their congregations.
Now, the country’s religious communities face an additional challenge. According to a new report from the Napa Legal Institute, 43 states and the District of Columbia are failing to prioritize clergy in their COVID vaccine distribution plans — despite federal guidance dictating that they should be deemed essential workers.
“The First Amendment, public policy, and current administrative guidance clearly require that clergy and faith leaders receive the same protections as other frontline essential workers,” Napa Legal writes in its report on the discrepancy.
The federal framework used to dictate “essential worker” status — the “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Guidance” put out by U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency — explicitly states that “clergy and other essential support for houses of worship” should be included.
Napa Legal’s report, which comes after a review of 51 state and district-level vaccine rollout plans, sorts the directives into three groups: those that have no prioritization or messaging related to clergy and faith leaders (red); those that technically include clergy — often for categories like “unpaid healthcare workers” or school staff — but do not explicitly reference them (yellow); and those that prioritize and mention clergy (green).
Nearly half of the country’s plans (25) fall into the red category. Only seven states — Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — fall into the green jurisdiction.
“The research showed a problematic manifestation in red- and yellow- light states of an increasingly common worldview in which religious organizations are simply invisible in public messaging regarding essential workers, despite the organizations’ positions on the frontlines of relief efforts and corporal works of mercy,” the document notes.
In November, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that some restrictions on indoor worship in New York — which falls in the yellow bucket — were unconstitutional. Subsequent similar cases from California (red), Colorado, and New Jersey (yellow) have been sent back to the lower courts in light of the recent decision.
The U.S. vaccination plan, largely coordinated at the state and local level with federal guidelines, continues to advance. According to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, 68.3 million doses have been administered in the U.S., with a rolling average of 1.31 million doses per day over the past week. The number of Americans who have received at least one vaccine dose now outweighs the number of Americans who have tested positive for COVID-19.
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