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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Science and reason must prevail over religious exemptions

Steve Benson cartoon

Failure to be fully vaccinated in the United States — where the vaccines have been long available for free and where most children are now eligible — is, to state the obvious, prolonging the pandemic. 

There’s no excuse —not even a religious one — in a secular nation predicated on science, not to do one’s part to stop the spread of Covid-19 and its ever-growing variants. Atheists and nonbelievers can take pride that we are the most vaccinated sector in the United States. Unfortunately, white Christian evangelicals, the least vaccinated and most resistant group, wield disproportionate political power to disrupt rational public health policy.

The remedy is at hand, yet vaccine mandates and even “vaccine passports” at the state, public school or other local levels remain the exception. Lawsuits, mostly by religious politicians, individuals or entities, abound against existing mandates, including President Joe Biden’s OSHA rule that companies with 100 or more employees must require vaccination. Litigation, backlash and resistance greet mandates, and the demand for religious exemptions from public health rules is growing.

Public health policy emphatically does require universal mandates, yet confusion reigns over the legality of religious exemptions. 

Vaccine mandates are neutral. A vaccine mandate is a neutral rule that applies to everyone, religious or not. The mandate doesn’t discriminate among religions, just as the novel coronavirus doesn’t “discriminate” among who it infects. 

Vaccine mandates are constitutional. The government’s authority to protect the health and safety of citizens is well-established. The Supreme Court ruled vaccine mandates constitutional over 100 years ago in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), and has affirmed that ruling multiple times over the past century. Jacobson involved the constitutionality of a regulation by the board of health in Cambridge, Mass., to require vaccinations in response to a smallpox epidemic. The Supreme Court held that the mandate represented a valid exercise of the state’s police power and affirmed that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” 

The Supreme Court again found, in Zucht v. King (1922), that the school district of San Antonio, Texas, could constitutionally exclude unvaccinated students from attending district schools. In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court concluded that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” In Employment Division v. Smith, (1990), the court reaffirmed that the free exercise clause does not “require religious exemptions from . . . health and safety regulation such as . . . compulsory vaccination laws.” 

Mandatory vaccinations are longstanding. Mandatory vaccinations date to a decision by George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, to order an 18th century version against smallpox, which he termed the “most dangerous enemy.” It was a good thing he did, as historian Thomas Schactman notes: “Nothing that Washington did had a greater impact on the outcome of the war than his actions to protect his troops from death by smallpox.” The infection rate among the American soldiers dropped from 17 percent to 1 percent in a year. 

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have long required school-aged children to receive vaccines for measles, rubella and polio. The state of Mississippi does not provide for any exemptions from school vaccinations.

Religious entities do not oppose vaccination policies. No major U.S. religious denomination opposes vaccination outright, with only a few tiny Christian denominations as outliers. 

Legal and practical problems in “accommodating” religious exemptions. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman warns, “Employers who choose to accommodate religious exemptions . . . have to investigate subjective matters on which they have no expertise,” noting the exception invites “every phony and crank to escape a basic measure needed to protect those around them.”

Curtis Chang, who is affiliated with Duke Divinity School and is cofounder of Christians and the Vaccine, points out in a New York Times guest essay that any institution considering religious exemptions should require applicants to demonstrate they’ve consistently refused other immunizations for religious reasons. Most evangelicals have historically chosen to be immunized against polio, measles, tetanus and other diseases.

The burden should be on the individual seeking the exemption anyway. Government officials rolling out vaccination mandates have misguidedly assumed they have a legal duty to offer an exemption.

Who’s behind anti-vaccine backlash? Arch-conservative governors, uniformly Christian and rightwing, are outracing each other to ban Covid mandates, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s banned private entities from mandating vaccination. Other Christian nationalist governors include Ron DeSantis, of Florida, who banned vaccine passports, and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who’s using Covid funds to reward private schools for banning masking. Multiple states with Christian right-dominated legislatures are suing Biden over the OSHA rule. Litigating private entities include Christian Employers Alliance, defended by Alliance Defending Freedom. Among petitioners against the OSHA rules are Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Liberty Counsel is spearheading anti-mandate challenges.

It’s no coincidence that zealous evangelical Gov. Abbott, who signed SB 8  — the notorious law careening Texas into the land of The Handmaid’s Tale — has been among the most aggressive public officials in banning Covid mandates, hypocritically condemning them as federal “overreach.” Mandatory motherhood is not government “overreach,” but a jab in the arm to protect health and defeat a pandemic is? The religious motivation to ban both abortion and Covid mandates is irrefutable.

Two closely-watched lawsuits involve Christian, anti-abortion healthcare workers in Maine and New York State. The Maine religious healthcare workers, so far losing their lawsuit, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Sooner or later this or a similar case will be scheduled for the Trump court’s “shadow” or regular docket. Then, watch out. We can expect to see the Religious Freedom Restoration Act invoked to assert that those with “sincerely held religious beliefs” are above the law. Clearly, individuals who deny science and/or who place their idiosyncratic religious beliefs above the health of patients don’t belong in the health care or nursing home care professions.

“Religiously-motivated anti-vaxxers challenging mandates act like not being vaccinated is somehow a courageous act of personal integrity,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is in fact the height of selfishness. These latter-day Know-Nothings fail to grasp or honor the fact that vaccinations work not only by providing protection to the individual, but to the community through herd immunity.” Unfortunately, the current estimate is that we will only reach Covid-19 herd immunity when 90 percent or more of the population is vaccinated. 

As the centuries-old battle of science versus faith continues unabated, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will continue our vital work to ensure that reason and science — not religious obstructionism — end up prevailing in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The United States and the world have a long way to go, and irrationality is still “the most dangerous enemy.”

Thanks to FFRF Attorney Chris Line for his research and drafting of much of this statement.