What religious groups oppose vaccination — even during epidemics?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Judges and public officials will be coping with the issue of vaccination mandates that President Biden, states and employers are imposing to counter spread of the stubbornly contagious and virulent COVID-19 virus. This again raises the issue of religious-liberty claims for exemption from required vaccination.
Pastor Greg Locke of the independent Global Vision Bible Church in suburban Nashville, Tennessee, has just been permanently banned from social media postings on Twitter after demanding that Christians shun vaccination (as well as preaching that Biden is a usurper and not a legitimately elected president).
And the Washington Post highlighted Pastor Jackson Lahmeyer of Tulsa, Oklahoma (who’s running against devoutly evangelical U.S. Senator James Lankford in next year’s Republican primary). Lahmeyer offers exemption letters for anyone who donates at least $1 to become an online member of his charismatic Sheridan Church. So far 30,000 supplicants have downloaded his exemption letter.
The President’s new policy has already sparked a significant upswing in religious exemption requests. So, what are the facts on religious groups and opposition to vaccination?
A bit of history: Major religious objections arose with the first vaccination experiments in the American Colonies. But influential Congregationalist Cotton Mather championed scientific progress and defended smallpox experiments using adult volunteers. Eminent theologian Jonathan Edwards agreed and set an example as a vaccination volunteer when president of the school we know as Princeton University. He died as a result in 1758. Edward Jenner only achieved vaccination safety 38 years later.
Since then, official Christian or Jewish protests have generally been rare to non-existent as vaccinations are required to enter U.S. public schools, military service or particular jobs, or for foreign travel. Even a major Pentecostal group like the Church of God in Christ, which emphasizes faith healing through prayer, simultaneously endorses modern medicine, including vaccination.
Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School states that “no major organized religious group has officially discouraged the [COVID] vaccine and many, like the Catholic Church, have explicitly encouraged them.”
Curtis Chang of Christians and the Vaccine and Duke Divinity School wrote in The New York Times that “there is no actual religious basis for exemptions from vaccine mandates in any established stream of Christianity,” and people seeking religious exemptions “rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning.” He wants private employers, and the clergy, to oppose all religious exemptions.
Tiny anti-medical cults do exist, and some Amish believers who shun modern ways may object. An anonymous Buddhist student at the University of Colorado medical school joined a federal lawsuit against the school’s vaccine policy that grants exceptions only to defined religious systems whereas he as an individual shuns “products developed through the killing or harming of animals (including human beings).”
But the chief exception to the rule is Christian Science, which departs from mainstream Christian theology. Its foundational teaching, in Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” says that “man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones and other material elements.” Belief in the “falsity of all material things” means “every disease is an error” of “mortal mind” that is overcome by “divine Mind,” the only reality. Consequently, Eddy defined smallpox epidemics as “mental contagion” caused by “mortal mind,” not by matter, which does not exist.
Over the years, Christian Scientists have naturally lobbied for legal exemptions from vaccination and most other medical treatments. Amid the COVID crisis, a January item in the official Christian Science Sentinel was flexible, saying that when vaccination is required “our compliance with the law wouldn’t need to compromise our reliance upon God” for authentic health.
With Judaism, there was a serious 2019 measles outbreak among strict Orthodox communities in Israel and the New York City area where many shunned vaccinations. The city exacted fines and closed some religious schools. Significantly, vaccination was urged by rabbinical authorities, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid, and “Torah true” organizations such as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, and the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association.
This demonstrated the prior observation in the academic journal Vaccine that outbreaks within religious groups stem from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically-based objections.”
Currently, some Christian pro-lifers raise concerns because COVID-19 vaccine projects employ stem cell lines from human fetuses that were aborted decades ago. A group of anonymous Christian health-care staffers cited this as the basis for a pending federal lawsuit against New York, among the few states that do not allow religious exemptions.
Despite Catholicism’s staunch opposition to abortion, Pope Francis urges vaccination on the love-thy-neighbor principle. The Vatican’s doctrine office accepts Covid vaccination because the abortion connection is “remote” and no “formal cooperation” with abortion is involved. But if choice is possible the church favors the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, where fetal cell lines were used only in testing, over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, where such cells are used in production. (Vaccines as such contain no fetal cells.)
Under American law, exemption is granted on the basis of the individual’s sincere belief, even if that person’s religious group favors vaccination. Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman thinks religious sincerity is too difficult for judges to assess. He takes a laissez-faire approach. Courts “should let people decide for themselves what they actually believe, not second-guess them.”
But Professor Laycock, a religious-liberty proponent who usually defends conscience exemptions, thinks matters turn quite different with a public health crisis where unvaccinated people bring harm to others. He thinks government should need a “compelling interest” to interfere with religious rights (current Supreme Court doctrine disagrees) and that’s the case with mandates aimed at “saving lives, preventing serious illness, or preserving hospital capacity.”
He notes that prior to an August temporary restraining order against Western Michigan University, which mandated vaccination for athletes but not other students, no state or federal court had ever granted a religious exemption when government cited “compelling interest” n order to require vaccination. The prime Supreme Court precedent on this government power [in Jacobson v. Massachusetts] has held for 116 years.
There is, of course, an influential secular movement against vaccination. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss of the University of California’s Hastings law college says though it’s difficult to assess sincerity there is “no reason to think most, or even a large share, of religious exemption requests to Covid-19 vaccines are from people whose opposition is religious. . . . Granting exemptions on the basis of religion incentivizes these people to lie.”