With the upswing in US measles outbreaks in recent years, the controversy over parents refusing to vaccinate their children on religious grounds has not only come to the forefront, but also is sweeping the country. Today, 46 states have religious exemptions to vaccination, 17 of which have personal exemptions as well. Minnesota has personal exemptions that do not mention religion. California, Mississippi, and West Virginia have no nonmedical exemptions at all.
Now, however, many states are rethinking their stances on this issue, including the following:
- New York
- West Virginia
Religious Freedom vs. Personal Preference
Many people believe that the vaccination controversy has far more to do with the anti-vaccine personal preferences of some parents than it has to do with the religion, if any, to which they adhere. But a religious freedom argument works much better than an “I just don’t want to do it” argument.
Actually, with the exception of the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientists) and the Dutch Reformed Church, no major religion strictly forbids vaccinations. Nevertheless, some specific congregations, most notably fundamentalist Christian, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and Amish ones, interpret their religion’s teachings in ways guaranteed to prohibit vaccinations.
Public Health Issue
Whether or not vaccinations represent a legitimate religious freedom issue, there’s no question that they represent a huge public health issue. Vaccines have virtually eradicated the following diseases that used to take millions of lives and produced grave illnesses, some with lifetime consequences, in those who survived:
- Rubella (German measles)
- Pertussis (whooping cough)
When parents refuse to vaccinate their children, some of these diseases can crop up again in epidemic proportions. Witness the measles outbreak earlier this year in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that resulted in at least 764 confirmed cases. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency and closed several yeshivas (Jewish schools) in an effort to prevent measles from spreading even more than it already had.
Those opposed to religious exemptions to childhood vaccinations point to the necessity of “herd immunity” (i.e., the need for an overwhelming majority of people to be vaccinated so as to protect the community as a whole). Without mass vaccinations, the diseases that they prevent can spread like wildfire, especially among school-aged children who spend considerable time in close proximity with other kids.
Once California rescinded its religious and personal exemptions for vaccinations following the 2014 Disneyland-linked measles outbreak, unvaccinated children can obtain an education through homeschooling. Unvaccinated children cannot attend public schools unless their parents produce a doctor-signed note stating the medical reason why their kids cannot be vaccinated.
Constitutional Freedoms; Government Control
Everyone knows that the First Amendment guarantees several important rights, including the following:
- Right against an establishment of religion
- Right against prohibition of the free exercise of religion
- Right of free speech
- Right of a free press
- Right to peaceably assemble
- Right to petition the government for redress of grievances
But what you may not realize is that the US Government has a long history of interfering with religious freedom. Take peyote, for example. Many Native Americans use this mildly hallucinogenic, and illegal, drug as part of their religious services. The federal government shut down this practice in the 1800s, and it took the establishment of the Native American Church in 1918 to restore it, declaring that peyote is a sacrament in this church.
Nearly 100 years later, another religious group took their grievance all the way to the US Supreme Court. This particular group, a church known as Uniao Do Vegetal (Union of the Plants), uses hoasca, a tea containing the illegal hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), as part of their worship services. A unanimous Supreme Court allowed them to continue doing so.
Whether or not the vaccination issue will ultimately arrive at the Supreme Court remains an open question. In the meantime, the debate becomes ever more heated.