Commentary

Get rid of religious exemptions for vaccines

Faith should not take precedence over community protections against a mortal threat

October 11, 2021 4:45 am

The front entrance to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Colfax Avenue in Denver on Dec. 21, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Too often the faithful get the wrong idea about the freedom that the First Amendment accords religion, and they take it to mean that their claim to it supersedes other rights — even the right to life. What’s worse, misguided policies of the state encourage this attitude.

That’s what’s happening with the COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has instituted vaccine mandates for personnel at long-term care facilities and for health care workers, as well as for state employees in correctional and other facilities that serve vulnerable populations. Local governments and private enterprises have instituted their own vaccine mandates. Among the limitations to these vital public health measures is an exemption for religious beliefs.

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Religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are so common we take them for granted. But COVID-19 has exposed them to be as unjustified as they are dangerous, and it’s time we got rid of them for good.

The First Amendment does not guarantee a right to a religious exemption to vaccines. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court first established in a late-19th century case, which involved polygamy among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the First Amendment protected religious beliefs but not necessarily actions that stem from those beliefs.

No less a conservative than Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in a 1990 case that involved two Native Americans who were fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits after ingesting peyote during a religious ritual, observed that enforcement of general rules that apply to all members of a democratic society “must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself.”

The Supreme Court has vacillated on its interpretation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, but even in its more permissive decisions it has acknowledged that the government might have a compelling interest in enforcing laws even when they preclude certain religious practices.

Colorado requires students to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella, but it allows an exemption if the student “is an adherent to a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations or has a personal belief that is opposed to immunizations.” That applies to anyone, basically, who doesn’t want a vaccine and is willing to say so formally. Colorado is one of only 15 states that allows for exemption based on a personal belief, and not just a religious one.

The state mandate for COVID-19 vaccines similarly allows for a “religious exemption.” About 800 Colorado health care facilities recently submitted a religious waiver request, and, as of Friday, 883 staffers in the Colorado Department of Corrections have submitted nonmedical vaccine exemption requests, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson told Newsline. In addition, federal rules in some cases require vaccine-mandating employers to make accommodations for vaccine refusers who claim “a sincerely held religious belief.”

All of these exceptions should be abolished.

The most shameful aspect of religious exemptions to vaccines is their naked selfishness.

The primary reason we should eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines is that public health authorities are operating under the mother of all compelling interests. COVID-19 has killed more than 700,000 Americans, including almost 8,000 Coloradans, and the state is currently struggling through a fifth wave of the disease, more than a year and a half after the start of the pandemic. No action based on a religious belief should ever take precedence over action that protects members of a community from a threat to their lives. This goes for all crucial vaccines, not just those for COVID-19. In 2018, out of 49 reporting states Colorado ranked last for kindergarten vaccination rates. Almost 25,000 students in Colorado schools have filed for a nonmedical vaccine exemption. That creates a dangerous environment for every student in the state.

Religious exemptions to vaccines belie the fact that very seldom do religions actually oppose vaccinations. Only the Dutch Reformed Church, Christian Science Church and several smaller denominations express anything like theological objections to vaccines. The Colorado Catholic Conference in a contemptible move created a template COVID-19 vaccine exemption letter for adherents to adapt and submit. But this spirit of refusal was not shared by other Catholic authorities in the country, nor even by Pope Francis, who urged people to get vaccinated.

The most shameful aspect of religious exemptions to vaccines — a quality they share with many recent loudmouth appeals by conservatives to “freedom” — is their naked selfishness. In all the rhetoric about the supposed believer’s precious “conscience,” rarely does one find any expression of concern for community, neighbors, or even the fellow faithful. This seems odd for an institution devoted to love for humankind, but it also reveals every religious exemption’s incongruity with the overwhelming interest that democratic institutions have in maintaining public health.

Religious exemptions to vaccine mandates directly undermine efforts to protect public health, particularly during the emergency of a pandemic. They should be eliminated wherever they exist.

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