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On Sept. 3, the day after her children’s school district mandated that students wear face masks, Kristen Grant became an ordained minister.
She did this through an online site, Universal Life Church. The process takes less than a minute, I discovered. Two clicks, and I was one step away from becoming Rev. Connie. I declined.
The 37-year-old mother of four in Germantown, Ohio, said she sought the online ordination for one reason. She wanted to support anti-mask parents seeking religious exemptions for their children.
Valley View School District’s religious exemption form requires a signed statement from a “religious official.” Grant, a self-described “Constitutional Christian,” was happy to oblige.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” she said. “I haven’t broken any laws. I did what I was told I had to do.”
On this, she’s right. Several school officials bemoaned to me Grant’s willingness to exploit a loophole, but the district set no qualifications for religious leaders. And so here we are.
Why talk to Kristen Grant?
Grant’s full-page written statement begins, “My name is Kristen Grant, and I am a Religious Leader and founder of Freedom mission. I am an ordained minister and registered and in good standing with the state of Ohio. I am writing this letter to confirm that ...”
The letter goes on to recite what is becoming boilerplate language of the anti-mask anti-vax crowd. It ends with a Bible verse from 2 Corinthians, which, with its reference to “unveiled faces,” has become another go-to passage for those opposed to masks.
As a new minister, Grant has not hesitated to apply her signature to the bottom of those letters: 169 students have been granted a religious exemption from wearing masks even as the pandemic surges, again. School officials stress that this represents around 100 families, in a district of roughly 1,800 students. That caveat will be small comfort to any family of a child who ends up infected with COVID-19.
Grant is certainly not the first “religious leader” eager to use a self-styed version of religion to defy government attempts to keep children and families safe during this pandemic.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that Jackson Lahmeyer, a pastor and Republican senate candidate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started selling signed religious exemption forms to anyone who streamed at least one of the church’s platforms and donated a dollar to the church. In just two days in September, 30,000 people downloaded those forms, according to Lahmeyer.
In Rocklin, California, Pastor Greg Farrington freely offered the forms to anyone requesting them. He has his fans.
"I think he's a fireball. He believes in what he preaches," Bonnie Reed told a local television reporter after a Sunday morning service. "For us who choose not to (receive a COVID vaccine), we put our faith in the Lord, and Jesus is the great physician for us."
It took a while for Kristen Grant to agree to an interview. Online reader comments on a recent Dayton Daily News story about her efforts had rattled her.
“People were saying that I should be arrested,” she said. “One of them said something about me being responsible for other people’s deaths. Let’s hope my child doesn’t get COVID and die. That I was a horrible parent. Attacking my parenting, attacking my religious beliefs, attacking pretty much everything you can attack when it comes to another human being.”
She does not believe factual reports of rising COVID-19 hospital deaths among the unvaccinated. It’s a scam, she said, to help doctors and hospitals make money through reimbursements for treatment. She believes in a mythical natural immunity and is critical of those who “expect a person to wear a mask to protect you, but don’t take any care of your own body.”
She recited a list of vitamins and supplements that are not proven defenses against COVID-19. When I tell her there is no support for her argument, she insists that’s because “anything that is naturally good for you is being censored. You can’t even look up elderberry syrup on Pinterest.”
This is false. I Googled “Pinterest” and “elderberry syrup” and immediately found a site with dozens of images.
My prayer for Christian unity: I wrote about why I got a COVID vaccination. Then I was fired from my job.
So, why bother talking to Kristen Grant? Why give people like her any attention?
To me, the answer is obvious. She’s having an impact, just like other so-called leaders who are waging wars against science across the country. We can ignore them, and some enjoy mocking them. But we underestimate their growing influence at our peril.
Major religions and their leaders support the vaccines against COVID-19. This includes Pope Francis, who in August released a video in which he said vaccines “bring hope to end the pandemic, but only if they are available to all and if we collaborate with one another.” That same month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renewed its call for Mormons to be vaccinated and wear face masks. Even the Christian Science Church has issued a statement counseling “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.”
These institutional statements are helpful, but we need more religious leaders speaking out in their congregations and communities in support of vaccines and masks. In their absence, charlatans flourish.
Such language, for a minister
Each of us is more complicated than our current story, and Kristen Grant is no exception. Her childhood was hard, she said; her father died when she was in her 20s, and she has long been estranged from her mother. She was open about how she has been seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety, depression and panic attacks. She cited this as the reason for her refusal to wear a mask. This decision, along with her beliefs about the pandemic, ended her two-decade career as a hairdresser. Most clients, it turned out, didn’t agree with her about this pandemic.
She shrugs it off. COVID-19 is the work of the devil – she said this repeatedly – and while her church attendance in the past was sporadic, she is one of God’s soldiers now.
“You’re not going to change the world by going to church. You’re only going to change the world by being the church. … My calling is to help others and that’s what God wanted you to do: He wanted you to be the church for people who needed it and that is what I’m trying to do.”
Religion to the rescue: How appeals to faith can inspire people to get COVID vaccination
In a Facebook Live video in early September, Grant announced her ordination from a car as her teenage daughter drove. She used her fingers to make air quotation marks as she mentioned the district’s mandatory “religious document,” and peppered her speech with responses to live comments.
She laughed when someone posted – during her livestream – that some parents are requesting that kids who have religious exemptions be in separate room. “Well, f---,” she said, “I’d be all for that. ... What is this? Nineteen-friggin – is this Ruby Bridges shit, is that her name?” She was referring to the 6-year-old girl who, in 1960, was the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the South.
Repeatedly during the video, she paused to yell at her daughter. “Oh, Jesus Christ, right, right! You have to turn – I can’t with this shit. … You have to go, it’s a yellow light. There’s no cars coming, f-----g shit. … I’m going to knock you the hell out.”
When I told her I’m not used to hearing such language from a minister, she was unapologetic.
“I can love Jesus and I can love the word f--- a lot. … Nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘You cannot say cuss words.’”
Well, I have kept my promise to Kristen Grant. I told her you would know her by her words.
USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio mom becomes minister online to OK religious exemptions for masks