The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Phony religious objections to vaccines will hurt us all

Workers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and their supporters protest against vaccine mandates on Nov. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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As new coronavirus vaccine mandates come into effect around the country — including a Biden administration requirement for large employers — anti-vaccine forces are gearing up for their own offensive. While there will be lots of talk of “tyranny,” the usual insane claims that the vaccines contain a microchip to track your movements, and (for Tucker Carlson fans) arguments that they don’t work and are killing people by the thousands, we can also expect to see anti-vaxxers slap a new trump card on the table: religious exemptions.

It’s already happening among federal workers, who are subject to a vaccine mandate. As The Post reports, “tens of thousands of holdouts have requested exemptions on religious grounds, complicating President Biden’s sweeping mandate to get the country’s largest employer back to normal operations.”

To have a valid religious exemption, these people must claim that their refusal to be vaccinated is required by their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” in the words of the Civil Rights Act. In many cases, these claims will be bogus. And we should say so.

This gets into some complicated legal and social territory: In a country with extraordinary religious diversity, we rightly have a strong preference for not questioning what people say their religious beliefs are, even if we might find them absurd. Those beliefs are extremely personal, and our tradition of religious freedom makes us recoil at the government being in a position of drawing lines between legitimate and illegitimate religious beliefs.

But there are limits, especially when people’s newfound “beliefs” put others at risk of illness or death.

The first part of the context here is that almost no organized religion says its adherents should refuse vaccines. Even Christian Scientists, who rely on prayer and refuse most medical treatment, are not opposed to vaccines. In an official statement, the denomination said its members “strive to cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials. We see this as a matter of basic Golden Rule ethics and New Testament love.”

The second part of the context is, of course, entirely political. Elite conservatives — both Republican politicians and influential media figures — successfully turned vaccine refusal into an emblem of conservative identity and resistance to the Biden presidency. As a result, vaccination rates are highest in blue states and lowest in red states. That vaccine refusal has become deeply political — not religious — is obvious to everyone, and most conservative refusers are forthright about it, not bothering to search for a Bible verse they can use to dress up their opposition in religious terms.

The closest thing to a sincere objection has its roots in abortion, but even that falls apart on examination. Some have falsely claimed that the vaccines themselves contain fetal cells, while others have argued that because the vaccines were tested on cell lines from aborted fetuses, that means that taking them would be cooperating with abortion. But fetal cell lines have been used to develop everything from Tylenol to Preparation H. And the Catholic Church — which isn’t exactly squishy in its opposition to abortion — has rejected the argument, with Pope Francis urging everyone to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the fate of the administration’s requirement for large employers is in doubt. The 5th Circuit, known as the most conservative appeals court in the country, just issued a stay halting the mandate. While anything is possible, it’s a fair bet that the Supreme Court’s conservatives will be ill-disposed toward the mandate on any number of grounds.

Even if the justices stop short of forbidding the administration’s requirement to go ahead, they will likely say that wide latitude should be given to anyone who claims a religious objection to the vaccine; in recent years they’ve shown devotion to the idea that religious people — especially conservative Christians — should be able to ignore laws and rules they find objectionable.

One way or another, employers will face a deluge of exemption requests that are anything but “sincere.” You will not be surprised to learn that Facebook is full of groups where people trade tips on how to work the system to get religious exemptions. And the con artists are cashing in: One pastor in Oklahoma will give you a form to download to claim a religious exemption — if you donate to his church.

So while we’ve had minor debates about religious exemptions to school vaccines before, we’re about to see a huge increase in the number of people who in the past gladly got flu shots and had their kids immunized against diseases such as measles and rubella, but have now suddenly discovered that God doesn’t want them to get the coronavirus vaccine. And we’ll all be put at risk.