Don’t Use Your Religious Beliefs to Endanger Your Community

Talking about vaccines as we come off Memorial Day and consider what people have sacrificed in the name of freedom only seems natural. I figure as long as I am mixing patriotism and vaccines together, I might as well add a discussion about God.

People who know me know that I am a religious adherent–the type who even goes to church on Sundays. I believe that people should be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs freely as long as they do not harm others. Most arguments against a religious exemption focus on this last bit: not harming others. Vaccine refusal puts both a child and her community at risk for harm, and ought not be protected by the right to practice religion freely.

People who are religious often feel nervous, however, with the idea of eliminating a religious exemption to school vaccine requirements. Even if they vaccinate their children and want others to do the same, they might worry that giving no exemption on the basis or religious belief will, at some point down the line, be used to limit their free practice of religion. It’s a fair worry, but one that I think is short-sighted.

In fact, the way I see things (as a non-lawyer and a non-scientist), religious exemptions to vaccine requirements weaken religious freedom in the United States. Currently, forty-five states in this country offer a vaccine exemption based on religious beliefs. (I happen to live in one of the states which does not offer an exemption based explicitly on religion, which delights me.)

The way that these religious exemptions are granted differs wildly from state to state. Some states, like Florida, allow unvaccinated students to attend if parents fill out a form that indicates that vaccines are somehow against their religious beliefs. Such a cavalier use of religious beliefs is a threat to anyone who holds any religious belief because religion is not a blank check to opt out of community responsibilities. Can you imagine if you were pulled over for speeding, and you told the officer that as a Lutheran, you sincerely believe that limiting speed is something the state should not impose on you?

If the religiously affiliated play the religious beliefs card too often, we would deserve to have our freedoms closely scrutinized. After all, why should a Methodist be able to send her unvaccinated child to school when an Atheist cannot? (And Agnostics should be able to speed if Lutherans can!)

In the case of religious exemptions, the scrutiny is fair. Which major religious faiths, as a matter of doctrine, advise their adherents to avoid immunization? People often point to Christian Science as the religious that forbids vaccination, but during a round of compulsory smallpox immunization, the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, advised her followers to follow the laws and submit to vaccination. So supporting a religious exemption is not really about allowing the free practice of religion as much as it is allowing people to believe misinformation about immunization and use their religious beliefs as a defense. When the science so clearly supports immunization, such a cynical use of religious beliefs ought not to be supported by law.

Other states, like New York, make it more difficult to obtain a religious exemption. There, a school has the right to accept or reject a religious exemption. In some cases, courts have been called in to rule on whether or not a religious belief was sincerely held in regard to opting out of immunization requirements. Dina Check was one such mother whose religious exemption was denied by the school because her religious belief was deemed insincere, and the court upheld this decision.

When people claim rights based on religious belief, they also potentially subject themselves as to the sincerity of their belief. This sincerity testing has all sorts of potential ramifications legally, I am sure, but even practically–I am not certain how to test whether or not someone sincerely believes something. And I fear handing over to the courts the power to adjudicate on how sincerely someone believes anything.

If we want religious freedom (or freedom from religion), we need to be careful about which rights we ask for on behalf of our religion. Protecting anti-vaccine parents who want to claim religious beliefs against vaccines is not carefully protecting religious rights. It is protecting the right to opt out of protecting a child and a community against diseases that harm children and other vulnerable people. And there’s nothing particularly religious about that.