During the latest round of vaccine panic, it has become a talking point that all but two states—Mississippi and West Virginia—allow parents to skip vaccinations for their children for nonmedical reasons. Some states offer a “personal belief” exemption from vaccination, and most states have the option of a “religious exemption.” (Some states have both.)
Slate and many other outlets have tackled the dangers of vaccine refusal extensively already. But what’s not as clear is why the religious exemption exists at all. First of all, do any religions actually oppose vaccination? Second of all, what exactly does one have to do to qualify for a religious exemption, and how is it different from the similar sounding “personal belief” exemption?
It’s almost impossible to find a religion that has a clear anti-vaccine stance. As articles about religious schools with measles outbreaks are quick to point out, even if one spokesperson claims vaccination is against the group’s beliefs, there is always a second spokesperson who will contradict that claim. On Wednesday, WNYC quoted ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, who told a Baltimore paper this past summer that vaccines are a hoax. But, it should be noted, he didn’t raise any religious objections to them. Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, of which Kamenetsky is a member of the board of rabbis, told WNYC in a wavering and inconclusive Chris Christie–style email: “It would be wrong, I think, to vilify those who opt to not vaccinate their children, or to postpone vaccinations. … But it would be equally wrong to ignore the clear science regarding the issue.” Making it pretty clear that while they don’t want to force anyone to vaccinate, they have no religious objection.
Indeed, most religions that are dragged into this debate don’t actually oppose vaccination. In 2013, John Grabenstein, the executive director for global health and medical affairs for Merck (which may lead conspiracy theorists to claim he is just shilling for Big Pharma), wrote a paper for the journal Vaccine outlining the purported religious objections. His conclusion: The only two religions that have any possible negative stance (though it’s not even clear that they do) on vaccination are Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church.
The Christian Scientists’ stance can be a bit tricky to ascertain, as they’re known to be excessively secretive about their thoughts on modern medicine. While they believe diseases can be cured through prayer, they don’t seem to have an official stance when it comes to preventive actions like vaccines. That being said, Grabenstein quotes Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, as saying, “Rather than quarrel over vaccination, I recommend, if the law demand, that an individual submit to this process, that he obey the law, and then appeal to the gospel to save him from bad physical results.”
The Dutch Reformed Church’s objections seemed to start out as fear of adverse effects, but, for some, have morphed into a belief that vaccines interfere with the relationship with God, as they make people less dependent on God. As a result of low vaccination rates in the Dutch “Bible Belt,” more than 1,200 people came down with measles in a 2013 outbreak. But there is another subset of the denomination that describes vaccinations as a gift from God that should be used with gratitude. (This interpretation is reminiscent of the famous religious joke about a drowning man who refuses help because God will save him, only to arrive in heaven to have God tell him, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”)
Some people cite the Catholic Church’s objection to certain vaccines, such as the rubella vaccine, that were initially developed in laboratory cell lines that were derived from aborted fetuses. (The vaccines themselves contain no fetal cells.) The church has stated that in those instances members should find alternatives when available but that there is no religious obligation to refuse these vaccines. (Catholic News Service even ends an article on this subject with the wonderful: “Children and unborn children must not pay the price for ‘the licit fight against pharmaceutical companies’ that produce immoral vaccines.”)
Jehovah’s Witnesses have famously strict rules regarding blood transfusions, based on their interpretation of the Bible’s commandment to abstain from blood. But they don’t seem to currently oppose vaccination.
But does any of this matter? Not really! Because in order to apply for a religious exemption, you don’t even need to be religious. If you live in Connecticut, for example, all you have to do is fill out this incredibly simple form—the simplicity of which anti-vaccine websites love to point out. In Florida, all that is needed is the child’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number—no proof of religion, or even name of a religion, is needed.
To give some perspective, when I was in high school, in order to take the SAT on a Sunday rather than the standard Saturday, a day I observed as Sabbath, my word wasn’t good enough. Neither was my parents’ word. I had to get a note from my rabbi making it clear why I wouldn’t be able to take the test. Of course, the state government doesn’t monitor the SATs, but for all intents and purposes it was tougher for me to take the SAT on a Sunday for religious reasons than it is to exempt a child from vaccination for religious reasons. This just goes to show that the religious exemption for vaccinations isn’t even about religion.
Personal belief exemptions, on the other hand, require more than just the signature of the guardian. In Oregon, legislation passed in 2013 requires parents or guardians who want to claim a nonmedical exemption for their child to receive education—via a health care provider or a video—about the benefits of vaccination. If guardians are going to decide not to vaccinate, the least we can expect from them is a signed document stating that they know the repercussions of their actions instead of attempting to drag religion into a battle it doesn’t even have a real stake in.