God and Man at UAl(berta)

October 2021

As it does many, perhaps most, contemporary academics, Max Weber’s famous phrase about being “religiously unmusical” suits me well. It’s been a strange sensation, then, to find I cannot shake the indignation I first felt when I read the policy laid out for students at my institution (the University of Alberta) who seek religious exemptions to its mandatory vaccination policy. The text is as follows:

To apply based on religious belief as a protected ground under the University’s Discrimination, Harassment and Duty to Accommodate Policy, students must provide documentation (completed by a faith group/religious leader) that explains in detail

  • the basis of the applicant’s faith/religious beliefs which are contrary to being vaccinated against COVID-19 and/or tested for COVID-19 and/or wear a non-medical mask

  • How long the applicant has been a member of the faith group/religion

  • Any other relevant information.”

I tried reasoning with myself. It’s not as if everyone is allowed to just make up his or her own religious exemptions for any old thing. You can’t tell the police that as a committed Sammy Hagarian who believes the Becurled One was put upon this Earth to spread the good news about not driving – nay, never to drive – a mere 55, you simply mustn’t be ticketed for exceeding the speed limit.

I sternly told myself to be practical. The University of Alberta is a large entity. It has policies in place for seeking disability accommodation. It has committees for assessing claims to Indigenous identity. That it should use these as templates when faced with a novel situation is perfectly sensible.

And yet. My discomfort has stayed with me.

It is the case that in Canada we have some rules that no one is allowed to break, no matter his or her religion. Aren’t these sorts of rules, however, usually laws? Don’t they usually get decided by elected legislative bodies? Isn’t abrogating the religious beliefs of others normally such a big deal that it is only done through legislative deliberation rather than through policies decided upon by appointed bureaucrats?

It is the case that universities adjudicate other protected status claims, disability and Indigenous status being two such. Aren’t these rather different from religious belief, however? Our understanding of what it means to be “disabled” or “Indigenous” is socially changeable, to be sure, but at any given time there are secular criteria to which we can refer to accept or reject claims. Importantly, disabled and Indigenous people themselves call for such adjudication because spurious claims cause them harm.

Transcribing these mental mutterings has helped me realize the source of my disquiet. That small still voice within – the one that is especially insistent about wrongs – is a precious entity that is prior to all governance. It grounds legitimate rule from below and it smiles on it from on high. Though I am not myself religious, I feel sure there is a common spring for what I feel about this and what religious people feel about their own beliefs. It is not right that this common spring should, in a country like Canada, and in an institution funded by its people, be subject to bureaucratic pettifoggery.

A little committee of University of Alberta administrators is now empowered to demand “faith groups / religious leaders” fill out forms to their satisfaction. They are going to pore over these forms to consider the persuasiveness of the basis of the “faith / beliefs” described therein. They are going to decide exactly what kind of time frame for holding those beliefs is enough to count (Paul, don’t bother applying if it hasn’t been at least a year since that trip to Damascus).

None of this is any of the business of university bureaucrats. They should not be allowed to ask these questions of students at a public university, let alone be empowered to judge the answers as either “satisfactory” or “wanting”. The scale of values fundamental to a free society is made absurd by this policy, and that it could have been written by anyone in a position of authority at a public university fills my godless heart with despair.

I raised objections to this policy at the September meeting of our General Faculties Council without impact. No one else in the room (nearly 200 are present at these meetings) shared my distress. My supposition is that alongside so many other civil liberties, religious freedom is considered acceptable collateral damage in the war on Covid.

Because, let’s be clear, that is the impact of this policy. Allowing bureaucrats to scuttle over religious belief and tie it down with Lilliputian administrative stakes is not just morally objectionable. It is politically terribly dangerous. Presumably, the University of Alberta is institutionally worried that if they don’t screen for “fakers,” too many students will apply for religious exemptions and their institutional vaccine mandates will not have the desired public health impact. But to have opaque committees of taxpayer-funded bureaucrats deciding whose religious views count as sufficiently “real” as to merit respect cannot be countenanced in a democratic society.

Should vaccination, then, be universally mandatory in the way speed limits are universally mandatory? Religious or other conscientious objections be damned? I don’t think so, but it is clear many of my fellow citizens do. Certainly, many of my fellow professors do, alongside most university administrators. Let us, then, have that conversation as citizens. We aren’t preserving anyone’s liberties by avoiding it. We are throwing those liberties, bit by bit, under the feet of people who don’t understand what they are trampling.