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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Sixth place — Law student essay contest: Nick Beachy


Nick Beachy

FFRF awarded Nick $500.

By Nick Beachy

Like all good Mennonites, my grandfather was a pacifist. Not just on Sunday mornings — he was the most peaceful man I have ever known. As a farmer and a school bus driver, he always had a gentle smile to spare for a relative, a neighbor or a student on his bus.

When the Selective Service tried to draft him into the Korean War, my grandfather responded that his commitment to nonviolence was non-negotiable. Fortunately, United States law recognizes a religious exemption to the draft. This exemption allowed many young Mennonites of my grandfather’s generation to stay out of the war as conscientious objectors. The peace-loving Mennonites served in other ways, working at hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

I have no problem with this kind of religious exemption. If a person’s conscience tells them not to pick up a gun, the government shouldn’t shove one into their hands. But recently, lawmakers around the country have started to pass a new kind of “religious exemption” law. When announcing these bills, legislators often use the same language used to defend conscientious objectors, praising “freedom of conscience” and “religious liberty.” You can usually spot these bills from their bland and seemingly inoffensive titles, from “religious liberty directives” to “conscience clauses.” Apart from the rhetoric, these laws have nothing in common with the religious exemption that protected my grandfather. These new “exemptions” are not exemptions at all. They are privileges — government-granted rights to harm others in the name of religion. 

In its support of religious exceptions, the Trump administration has sided with doctors who deny their patients contraceptives, Christian adoption providers who won’t work with Jewish volunteers, and federal contractors who refuse to follow federal anti-discrimination laws. Similar exemptions are being drafted in statehouses across America. While these laws are wrong, the most dangerous religious exemptions are those with life-threatening consequences for people who desperately need the law’s protection. The religious exemption to the vaccine requirement is a perfect example.

When my grandfather started elementary school, some diseases were just a part of growing up. In his time, nearly every child in America could expect to spend part of their childhood either covered by measles, swollen from mumps or stricken by polio. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, by the time my grandfather was driving a school bus of his own, his students were protected from these diseases. The bible attributes about 40 miraculous healings to Jesus of Nazareth. By biblical standards, then, vaccines are a mega-miracle, making millions of people healthier.

Vaccines are most effective when they are widespread. That’s why in every state, the law requires parents to vaccinate their children before sending them to kindergarten. This prerequisite protects children who are vaccinated and, just as importantly, protects immunocompromised children who can’t be vaccinated. Legally mandated vaccine requirements, along with the hard work of medical professionals, effectively eliminated diseases like measles by the beginning of the 21st century. The religious exemption threatens to collapse this structure by allowing some parents to opt out of the system. 

This would not be as much of a problem if not for the anti-vaccination movement. Despite being debunked again and again, “anti-vaxxers” continue to claim that vaccines cause autism, among other equally unverified claims. (It certainly doesn’t help that our president has previously alluded to this nonsense.) The religious exemption allows anti-scientific conspiracy theorists to turn their schoolchildren into miniature chemical weapons before putting them on the school bus. Unsurprisingly, this has caused many of the diseases of my grandfather’s youth to explode once again.

If a discriminatory baker refuses to serve a customer, the customer might be able to go to another bakery. If a minister refuses to solemnize a gay couple’s marriage, perhaps other officiants will. But a child can’t choose different parents. And say what you want about measles, mumps and rubella, at least they don’t discriminate. They will kill anyone if given the chance. They don’t care about a child’s religion.

Some states are starting to catch on to the problem. After anti-vaxxers caused a resurgence of measles in New York, the state repealed its vaccine exemption. But in my home state of Ohio, politicians are doubling down on this reckless legislation. House Bill 132, introduced earlier this year, would force schools to tell every parent about Ohio’s vaccine exemption. Couched in the language of “freedom” and “informed choice” (as these religious exemption laws so often are), this bill could create a new epidemic by extending the reach of the vaccine exemption. 

The legislators who expand the vaccine exemption are advocating for disease and death. Around the country, other politicians are using the same religious justifications as an excuse for equally harmful discrimination in medicine, childcare and business. While my grandfather’s conscientious objection to war was a courageous personal choice, these new exemptions do not protect the religious rights of parents, doctors and priests. They hurt children, women and gay Americans. 

I might not follow my grandfather’s religion, but I still think that we should love our neighbors. When it comes to the exemption epidemic, a little bit of Mennonite compassion could be the cure we need. 

Nick, 23, is a second-year student at the Harvard Law School. As an undergraduate student, he attended the University of Arizona and earned a degree in philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL). Nick comes from a historically Amish and Mennonite family.