St. Patrick School
Catholic leaders have informed local diocese schools that students can use a personal belief exemption to avoid a COVID-19 vaccine. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The local Catholic diocese, as well as other dioceses across the state, will allow students at parochial schools to use personal belief exemptions to avoid COVID vaccinations, despite a recent vaccine mandate put in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Back in October, Newsom issued a mandate that students at all public and private schools would have to be vaccinated for COVID-19. It appeared, at the time, that personal belief exemptions would not be allowed ­– since they are not allowed for other mandatory vaccines in California.

But upon a close reading of the law, Catholic leaders discovered the prohibition on personal belief exemptions does not apply to Newsom’s mandate, said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the local diocese.

“The list of required vaccinations can be expanded by the Governor and State (sic) health authorities, but if the list is expanded without legislative approval, the law requires that any mandate include a medical exemption and a personal belief exemption,” Catholic leaders wrote in a memo to local diocese schools, obtained by Voice of San Diego.

Church officials appear to be right. The state’s Health and Safety Code says public health officials can add vaccines to the state’s mandatory list, but “only if exemptions are allowed for both medical reasons and personal beliefs.”

Catholic leaders could prohibit personal belief exemptions for students, Eckery acknowledged, as San Diego Unified and many other school districts and private schools have done.

“Sure. Because we’re a private school we could say, ‘in order to attend our schools you have to do these things.’ But we’re not going to,” he said.

Instead, church leaders are walking a line between promoting COVID safety measures and keeping parents happy.

“The question of Covid mandates divides our parent communities as it divides our societies,” church leaders wrote in the memo. “We hope that this course of action by the diocese balances the need to protect the health of our students, teachers and staffs with the rights of parents to decide issues vital to their children.”

Some 15,000 students attend Catholic schools in San Diego County, Eckery said, and there are roughly 225,000 Catholic school students statewide.

Eckery said bishops across the state are aware of the law surrounding personal belief exemptions. He is aware of several other dioceses that have issued guidance to their schools that personal belief exemptions will be allowed, he said.

After Newsom announced the mandate, many Catholic school parents were anxious to learn what the church would do.

“We as parents believe it’s our sacred right – and we think the Catholic Church should back this up – to make health decisions for our children,” one parent told KUSI News.

Pope Francis has urged Catholics worldwide to get vaccinated, but many remain hesitant because research that led to the vaccine used cells derived from aborted fetuses.

“It appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children,” the website for the American Academy of Pediatrics Reads. However, as more adults have been vaccinated, children are beginning to make up a higher percentage of those who contract the virus. And they are still able to pass it on to adults, who may have not been vaccinated or may be immunocompromised.

If the legislature does vote to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of mandatory vaccines, then Catholic schools would no longer be able to allow families to receive personal belief exemptions. But church leaders think that’s unlikely.

“The consensus among legislative analysts with whom we have spoken is that it is unlikely that the legislature will give legislative approval for a mandate without a personal belief exemption,” the memo reads. “Thus any parent would be able to seek a personal belief exemption for the Covid mandate.”

Newsom’s office neither confirmed nor refuted the local diocese’s interpretation of the law.

“Vaccines are how we end this pandemic, and we’re treating the COVID-19 vaccine just like other vaccines that students are required to get to go to school,” wrote Newsom spokesman Alex Stack in an email. “As we head into the winter months, it’s more important than ever for our children to get protected against this deadly virus.”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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