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Most Americans support religious exemptions to vaccination but say they’re overused, survey finds

A protester in New York City rallies against vaccine mandates on Nov. 20. Her sign has a false claim that messenger RNA vaccines are not real vaccines. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

A slim majority of American adults support religious exemptions to coronavirus vaccine mandates, but most also say that too many people are using their faith as an excuse to avoid immunization, a new survey found.

The poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 51 percent of adults favor letting people opt out of vaccination requirements for religious reasons. But 59 percent say too many people are leaning on faith to request exemptions. That percentage includes majorities of every major religious group except White evangelical Protestants and other Protestants of color.

Sixty percent of people also say there are no valid religious reasons to refuse vaccination.

The findings, released Thursday, reveal the latest public opinion on religious exemptions as companies and state and local governments navigate loaded debates about when to grant the requests. Roughly 40 percent of Americans are not fully immunized, even though health officials maintain that widespread vaccination is key to ending the pandemic.

“The wide berth allowed for the expression and practice of religions, codified in our Constitution and laws, are bedrock American principles,” PRRI founder Robert Jones said in a statement announcing the new poll. “But Americans also believe that principles of religious liberty are not absolute but rather should be balanced with the health and well-being of our communities.”

Religious exemptions from coronavirus vaccines are expected to become a legal battleground

Survey respondents’ support for faith-based exemptions depends on the requests’ specifics. Roughly 40 percent of Americans say anyone who asks for an exemption should get one, as do 61 percent of White evangelical Protestants, the only major religious group whose majority took that stance.

About half of adults favor exemptions for people who have supporting documentation from a religious leader, according to the survey of more than 5,700 people. Fifty-five percent support exemptions for people who have refused other vaccines for religious reasons, and 57 percent favor them for members of religious groups with a record of doing so.

Questions of which circumstances should trigger exemptions apply to a relatively small number of Americans. Just 13 percent of adults say vaccination violates their personal religious beliefs, while 10 percent say it is opposed by their religion’s teachings. Of people who have refused coronavirus vaccination, a significantly larger group says vaccination goes against their personal religious beliefs — 52 percent — than say it is prohibited by their religion’s teachings — 33 percent.

The survey was conducted Oct. 18 through Nov. 9, before the new omicron variant of the coronavirus raised questions about how well the federally approved vaccines will fare and prompted an increase in people seeking booster doses. While leaders of major faith groups have expressed support for immunization, a minority of Americans have leaned on religious-freedom complaints to skirt vaccination.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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