Even When It Comes To Vaccines, Is Striking Down Religious Exemptions A Good Idea?

FILE- This Feb. 6, 2015, file photo shows a measles vaccine is shown on a countertop at the Tamalpais Pediatrics clinic in Greenbrae, Calif. The Australian government has ramped up pressure on parents who oppose vaccination by threatening to withhold child care and other payments from families that fail to immunize their children. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

The headline asks a question not because I’m trying to convince you of an answer. The typical rule of headlines is that if they ask a question, the answer is always “No.” However, I don’t actually know this answer.

The question stems from a recent law signed in New York to revoke religious exemptions on vaccines, meaning that if you object on religious grounds, you still are required to get them if you wish to attend a “public” place, like public schools.

Amid an ongoing measles outbreak, New York is requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated, even if parents have religious objections.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Thursday that removes nonmedical exemptions from school vaccination requirements. The law goes into effect immediately, his office said.

The move, which comes despite opposition from anti-vaccination activists and religious freedom advocates, puts New York alongside other states that do not allow nonmedical exemptions: California, Mississippi, West Virginia and Maine.

“The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe. This administration has taken aggressive action to contain the measles outbreak, but given its scale, additional steps are needed to end this public health crisis,” Cuomo said in a statement Thursday.
“While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks,” he said.

On one hand, I get the overall idea here. I don’t blame New York for taking action. After all, it’s right in their backyard.

New York’s belief, and I think this isn’t faulty logic, is that your rights do, in fact, end where the next person’s rights begin. Your rights, freedoms, liberties, etc. all end the moment you negatively impact someone else. When it comes to the ideas of herd immunity and the protection of those who, through no fault of their own, are biologically incapable of getting vaccines (because of autoimmune disorders, etc.), yeah, the rights of those you’re negatively impacting with your decisions do count as much as your own. And, by sheer number, you are affecting more people’s right to life with your decision to not vaccinate.

But… I am also deeply, deeply terrified of ceding ground to the government largely because we don’t ever take enough power away from it. We give and it takes. Never vice versa. If we give up religious exemptions on this, what religious rights are we going to let them take next? That’s the fear I have, and it’s a fear I feel like not enough people have. That’s a major breach of the religious freedom inherent in the Constitution.

I’d feel a whole lot better if the measure were made a whole lot narrower. The fact that it appears to be very broad in what it’s calling for is a big red flag for me.

So, where do we draw the line? That’s a question we need to be asking.

Now before anyone throws around any sort of accusation: I’m 100% pro-vaccine and I think the people who oppose them because of non-existent links to autism are among the most ignorant people on the planet. There is no connection – a fact that a recent study of hundreds of thousands of people clearly explains to us once again – and people should stop using faulty science to try and make one. But it’s hard to be as angry with people who claim religious exemptions, whether or not they are based on poor religious doctrine.

In New York, the problem arises in the Hassidic Jew community, which has been led to believe that vaccines are a violation of Jewish law. Even though they aren’t. It’s way more difficult to force someone to violate their religious beliefs than to simply say “You’re using the wrong science.” It’s the same way for some Christians, who oppose the use of vaccines because they historically used fetal tissue. While that is no longer really the case, the taboo has stuck and many Christians will not get their kids vaccinated.

While the information being used to justify their religious exemptions are wrong, the overall freedom to not be forced to do something against your religious beliefs is still enshrined in the First Amendment. It is not something we can or should give up lightly.

At the same time… these are kids we’re putting in danger here. The longer many of these people go around unvaccinated, the greater the threat on the American public.

It’s not necessarily a case of “Well abortion could be next!” because it’s not a comparable issue. That is within the confines of one body, and having an abortion doesn’t affect the greater public. But it is still a slippery slope to allow the government to be able to say “Your beliefs don’t matter when it comes to ‘x'” because you’ll eventually have a problem when they come back and say “And we’ll also take away your religious exceptions for ‘y’, too.”

So, I lay the question before you because it’s a subject I think we really need to have a conversation about. You in?