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Granting religious exemptions: church Trumps state

Governor Inslee’s vaccine mandates are widely credited with increasing the overall vaccination rate for our state. According to the WA Department of Health, as of November 8, 2021, 79.6% of our state population aged 12 and up have received at least one dose and 73.5% are fully vaccinated. Inslee is widely credited with basing public health decisions in the best available science.  The next step would be to eliminate the religious exemption for school vaccinations.

Not all states allow religious exemptions

Not all states allow religious exemptions from school vaccination requirements. New York State eliminated religious exemptions in 2019 in response to a measles epidemic that hit the Orthodox Jewish community particularly hard. (1) Maine eliminated its religious and personal belief exemption in 2019. California eliminated religious exemptions from school vaccinations in 2015. Mississippi’s religious exemption was struck down by its state Supreme Court in 1979 as a violation of equal protection laws. West Virginia has never allowed religious exemptions.

Religious support for COVID-19 vaccinations

Leaders of the three largest faith communities in the US have encouraged vaccinations against COVID-19. Among Christians, for instance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church issued a statement saying “there is no evident basis for religious exemption.”

Both the Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have said Catholics can receive the vaccine in good conscience given the goal of alleviating suffering. Pope Frances has declared getting a COVID vaccination an act of love.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese declared that “there is no exemption in the Orthodox Church for Her faithful from any vaccination for religious reasons.”

Similarly, the National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 and the National Black Muslim COVID Coalition released a statement in December 2020 encouraging Muslims to get vaccinated. The joint statement addressed specific concerns circulating widely on social media, stating that this type of vaccine does not lead to future genetic changes in the vaccinated person, that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not contain porcine products and that they do not contain stem cell products or dead fetal remains.

What is a religious exemption?

Religious exemptions are granted when the person applying is determined to have a  “sincerely held religious belief.” The key term here is “religious belief.”

Contrary to what many believe, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) holds that religious beliefs include not only traditional organized religions but also “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

According to the EEOC, a belief is religious if it is religious in the person’s “own scheme of things.” The EEOC’s expansive definition helps affirm religious freedom generally. When it comes to protecting public health, which is the rationale for school vaccination requirements, the expansiveness of the definition becomes problematic.

“Sincerely held religious beliefs”

Some individuals are requesting exemptions to vaccine mandates because of their personal, sincerely held religious beliefs, like individuals who believe in healing power of prayer and refuse all vaccinations.

Other exemption requests are based on sincerely held religious beliefs regardless of whether they are factual: that the vaccines contain pork, and/or contain aborted fetal cells, and/or that they alter our genes. The way the law is written, religious beliefs that are not in agreement with other members of the faith but are sincerely held can justify an exemption. At stake is the sincerity of the belief, not the accuracy of the information on which it is based.

“How-to” resist “leftist” public health measures

The widespread presence on the internet of materials aimed at helping people successfully claim religious exemptions indicates that more is at stake than sincerity. A quick search pulls up, with form letters for Jews and Christians. Another site gives more details about how to write exemptions, including the advice to include words from this list to emphasize the religious nature of your exemption request:

  • Sacred
  • Holy
  • Worship
  • Blessed
  • Conviction
  • Faith
  • Religious Mandate
  • Translation of the word of my God/Creator
  • Unique understanding of the language of God/Creator
  • Personal understanding of God’s/Creator’s message to me

Much active resistance to coronavirus vaccine mandates is politically motivated. As Adrian Bardon, professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University writes:

Conservative traditionalists from the historically dominant white Christian demographic in the US have had the most reason to feel threatened by science. Evolution by natural selection is threatening to many doctrinal religious traditionalists. Climate science threatens the economic status quo that conservatives seek to conserve. The whole concept of a public health mandate runs counter to the “small government” individualism of political conservatives.

Public health measures are associated with the political left. Rejecting public health measures in these cases becomes a signal of political and cultural identity.

An irreconcilable contradiction

Protecting religious freedoms is a fundamental value in this society. However, when religious beliefs trump science, as is the case when the state grants religious exemptions to vaccination mandates, church—or I should say churches—reign supreme. We no longer have a basis for understanding our shared physical reality.

The institution of science is imperfect, as are all institutions. But using science as the basis for public health decisions represents a better course for our collective future. It’s time for our state to rethink religious exemptions for school vaccinations.

Emily Lardner serves on the Publishing Committee for Works in Progress, and is a long-term contributor to the paper.

(1) For an in depth article by a New York Assemblyman on that state’s mandate, including a discussion of the free speech argument, see A plea to eliminate New York’s non-medical vaccine exemptions.


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