Vaccines are a Matter of Public Health, Not Religious Freedom

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This week, the number of reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. surpassed 800,000. As we pass this sobering milestone, the fight against COVID-19 still continues. The Omicron variant has presented new challenges to public health, including rising rates of infections among the unvaccinated and breakthrough infections in those who are vaccinated. Now more than ever, public health safety measures such as masking and vaccination are essential in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But even as rates of infection rise, some on the Religious Right have sought religious exemptions to bypass vaccine requirements designed to protect public health. 

New Polling Shows Religious Support for Vaccination

A new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) sheds new light on what Americans think about religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines. Many are critical of religious exemptions to COVID-18 vaccines; six in ten Americans say that there are no valid religious arguments to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, with a similar percentage agreeing that religious exemptions are being abused. Equally interesting is that across nearly every major religious group, at least eight in ten Americans reject the idea that their religious teachings prohibit general vaccinations. 

These findings line up with how various religious traditions have been approaching COVID-19 vaccination. Since the start of the pandemic, every major religious denomination in the United States has spoken out in support of getting vaccinated to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some have even instituted requirements for their staff to do so while others have stated that there is no basis for religious exemptions within their doctrine.

Religious Exemptions Put Public Health at Risk

In the New York Times Ethicist column, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that “Free-exercise claims may be denied when they clash with other exigent considerations, including other forms of liberty…People who say that they should be exempt without cost are refusing to take their responsibility to the rest of us seriously.”

The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to make our own decisions about matters of religion and personal conscience. True religious freedom protects the right to believe as we choose, without fear of discrimination or harm. At the same time, our individual right to religious freedom ends where the rights of another begin. In other words, religious freedom is not a license to endanger the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. And while we remain in the midst of a deadly pandemic, it does not demand tying the hands of public officials who are trying to safeguard public health. 

Court Temporarily Protects Vaccine Requirements for Health Workers   

On December 13, 2021, the Supreme Court refused a request to block New York’s requirement that healthcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, even when citing religious objections. The state cited longstanding preexisting vaccine requirements for other diseases. In regard to the requirement, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said,  “While we have made tremendous progress in getting New Yorkers vaccinated, this pandemic is far from over, and more must be done…this mandate will both help close the vaccination gap and reduce the spread of the Delta variant.” While a temporary victory for public health, the struggle to protect public health is far from over. Similar challenges to vaccine requirements are emerging all over the country in ways that put the most vulnerable at risk. 

Central to every faith community is the obligation to care for one another. In our congregations and in our communities, we put our beliefs into practice when we abide by public health guidelines. With winter weather driving people back indoors, it is all the more important that we protect the most vulnerable by getting vaccinated.

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to protect religious freedom.