Last week, joined by six religious and interfaith organizations, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a federal court urging that a Connecticut law that phases out religious exemptions for school vaccination requirements be upheld.
While this lawsuit doesn’t have a direct connection to vaccine mandates to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – the vaccines required for Connecticut schoolchildren do not currently include a COVID-19 vaccine – the decision that results from it is bound to affect that question as well.
As the Delta variant continues to ravage the country, some public officials are considering taking stronger steps to ensure that people are vaccinated. President Joe Biden has already mandated that federal employees get vaccinated or face regular testing, and The Washington Post reported on Friday that Biden is considering a more aggressive approach designed to spur vaccinations across the board. One option is withholding federal funds to public universities, nursing homes, medical facilities and other entities unless they require employees to be vaccinated.
The Post reported, “If the Biden administration goes forward with the plans, it would amount to a dramatic escalation in the effort to vaccinate the roughly 90 million Americans who are eligible for shots but who have refused or have been unable to get them.”
On the other side, a conglomeration of Christian nationalist organizations, anti-science forces and extreme libertarians have vowed to resist any mandates. Driven by hyper-partisanship or in some cases simple detachment from reality, some of them persist in downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic even as infections, hospitalizations and deaths shoot upward.
In a recent column, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called Biden the “scare-monger in chief” and charged that Biden “has decided that when it comes to COVID, the facts, the law, and the science don’t matter. You will be vaccinated, this Democratic leadership says – and surrender every constitutional right to privacy, employment, personal safety, and free speech until you do.”
These comments are typical of Perkins, who would apparently rather see Americans suffer as long as he can “own the libs.” But the problem is, Perkins and his gang have a fairly powerful weapon on their side in their ongoing war against keeping people healthy: Religious exemptions, such as the one that previously existed in Connecticut, are common in the states. And because it can be difficult for government bodies to distinguish objections based on legitimate religious beliefs from ones that aren’t truly based on faith, many people may be able to get away with falsely claiming religious objections when their views are actually grounded in nonreligious perspectives.
In Connecticut, so many parents claimed religious exemption from mandatory childhood vaccinations during the 2019-20 school year that 120 schools failed to reach vaccination levels needed for herd immunity against measles.
Some irresponsible officials are urging vaccine-hesitant residents to claim religious exemptions. In Louisiana, where COVID infections are spiraling, Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) prepared a memo advising residents how they can use religious exemptions to avoid an existing indoor mask mandate and potential vaccine mandates.
Remarking on the Connecticut case, Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate vice president and associate legal director, stated, “Connecticut health officials should be commended for the action they’ve taken to protect children after recognizing that the state had a growing problem of too few schoolchildren being vaccinated to reach herd immunity from preventable, potentially serious illnesses. We hope that more states follow in Connecticut’s footsteps and end harmful religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.”
The same holds true for COVID. Sweeping religious exemptions from vaccine mandates can only make it more difficult to combat the pandemic and return our lives to normal. They present a glaring loophole that, if left unaddressed, can only exacerbate completely preventable illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID.