COMMENTARY

Let's End Religious Exemptions for Vaccinations

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

June 07, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. If you oppose vaccination and you claim to do it on grounds of your religion, should you be allowed to have an exemption?

That issue came up recently in the state of Connecticut, and the decision was to remove the existing permission to exempt for religious reasons, and to eliminate that from Connecticut law so that you can no longer make the claim. The bill to do that passed the Connecticut Senate and the Assembly and was signed by the governor. That means Connecticut has now joined California, New York, and Maine as states where religious exemptions have been withdrawn. West Virginia and Mississippi had already decided against permitting religious exemptions.

What are the issues and what should parents facing school vaccination requirements be told about their rights? All states require school vaccination. Some, like Mississippi and West Virginia, only permit a health exemption. Most other states permit either a philosophical objection (I choose not to do it for personal reasons) or a religious exemption (it's against my faith to vaccinate my child). Increasingly, states like Connecticut and others are deciding that the religious exemption should be removed and not permitted.

It's not used often, but it is used. We know that when parents exempt their kids from childhood vaccination, outbreaks do occur. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that happening with measles, mumps, and pertussis. We know that making it difficult to take your child out of the required vaccinations in order to go to school is a good way to control outbreaks of infectious disease. I suspect that people will want to be building on this framework as COVID-19 vaccination begins to be approved for younger and younger children.

What's wrong with allowing somebody to say their religion prohibits them from getting their kids vaccinated? Well, if you look at all the major religions — and I've done this — you find out that none of them oppose vaccination. The Catholic Church, Muslim traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism — they're great books. Their major pronouncements were all done before vaccination. They don't oppose it. Indeed, nearly all of them say they endorse it. They want the community protected. They want children protected. They are in favor of vaccination.

Even some small denominations like Christian Scientists leave it to conscience as to whether you want to take a preventive action to try to stop infectious disease. Christian Scientists recognize that you should honor political authorities and try to be a good citizen in making decisions about what to do with a requirement like vaccination. In sum, there isn't any basis for a religious exemption because religions don't oppose vaccination.

I think parents sometimes need to be reminded of this. I think it's also important to realize that their religions want them to be vaccinated. That's a message that I think has to be delivered clearly, that this is something that is good.

Other people would say, "Well, I don't think you can abridge somebody's religious faith," but that isn't true either. Legally and morally, you can say, "You can't beat your child even if it's part of your religious belief that you have to remove sin by physical punishment of a child." The state won't let you do it because it's abuse.

If you had a religion that said, "We have to take hallucinogenic drugs, my family and I, every evening," the government isn't going to allow you to do that. You can't expose your child to the risk in the name of religion.

Religion has often been limited if it impacts the public health and if it impacts the health of children. That's why, even if you don't like it, you have to put your kid in a child safety seat. It is the case that morally the state has the right to say, "We're going to limit your ability to get out of vaccinating your kids, even if you claim a religious exemption."

I'm not trying to go to war with religion in saying that I think it's smart for Connecticut to remove the exemption and I think other states should do it too. I want people to act on their faith and be consistent with their values.

In reality, it's a small minority of anti-vaxxers who are wielding the argument that religion is incompatible with vaccination. It isn't. It's pro-vaccination, and we should make it part of public policy to say so. It's good for the kids, it's good for their families, and it's good for the community.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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