OPINION: Got Religion? Requests for vaccine exemptions are rising

By Lorraine Connelly

Governor Ned Lamont’s mandate that all state workers be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing to stem the spread of Coronavirus went into effect last September. At that time, more than 671 state employees were listed as noncompliant – some of whom were seeking religious exemptions.

According to a recent NPR report, in Washington, D.C., more than 400 fire and emergency medical workers applied for religious exemptions to the city’s vaccine mandate. In Los Angeles, roughly a quarter of the police department sought exemptions. And in Chicago, one third of police department employees had refused to report their vaccination status and were facing termination by year’s end.

According to the AP, more than 12,000 military service members have refused the Covid-19 vaccine and are seeking religious exemptions. Chaplains along with commanders and medical personnel now share the burden of deciding whether troops seeking exemptions have a “sincerely held belief,” and whether their exemptions will pose a risk “to mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, the health and safety of the force, and military readiness.”

With growing concerns about the Omicron variant, one must ask, is the flurry of requests for vaccine exemptions truly a matter of religious belief? A 2018 Gallup poll reports the percentage of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque at an all-time low, averaging 50%.

Dorit Rubenstein Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law, who has studied vaccine exemptions, reports in Wired, that in Connecticut, for example, the rate of religious opt-outs from school vaccine requirements grew from 1.7 to 2.7 percent – between 2012 and 2019 – even though there was no corresponding change in the state’s religious composition.

With no hard evidence that people have suddenly “got religion,” the motives for seeking religious exemptions likely stem not from religious doctrine but from personal beliefs or perhaps secular fears – a fear of health side effects or a general distrust of government mandates.

But what happens when personal beliefs don’t square with what religious leaders are telling their followers? Pope Francis has told Catholics that getting vaccinated is an act of love: “love for oneself, for families and friends, and for all people.” Some American Catholics or Evangelicals who are now seeking religious exemptions have raised the moral concern that fetal cell lines, cultivated decades ago, were used to develop and test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. But this argument doesn’t hold water, according to Matt Troup, CEO of Conway Regional Medical Center in Arkansas.

To prove his point, Conway told NPR that he compiled a list of 28 common medicines such as Tylenol, ibuprofen, Claritin, and Tums, that also used cloned fetal cell lines in testing, research, and development and sent the list to his employees. It is no surprise that after examining the list, the majority of those requesting exemptions chose to get the vaccine. Most could not say that they had foresworn pain relievers because of their religious beliefs. Said Troup, “People need to know that if they’re going to be consistent in their beliefs, that applies to a lot of different things other than the Covid vaccine.”

Consistency of beliefs also applies to parents seeking exemptions from school vaccine requirements for their children. Is it fair to the thousands of unvaccinated children who later in life may not share their parents’ religious persuasion, to be compromised thereafter by their parents’ decisions?

My own dealing with religious exemptions goes back to 1985 when I was living in Andover, Massachusetts, and was hired for a position at a private school which had an onsite childcare for its employees. I sought admission to the daycare for my infant daughter. One slight problem, she did not have any of the required childhood immunizations for admittance. Her father and I were, at the time, practicing a religion where church doctrine openly discouraged vaccinations.  We sought a religious exemption from the State of Massachusetts, but the school did not accept the exemption. If we wanted to place our child in daycare, she had to be vaccinated. We discussed the issue at length and decided to have our daughter vaccinated. We chose to forego our personal beliefs for a greater societal good, and I’m glad we did. I no longer have a fear or distrust of vaccines.

Covid vaccinations compel many to grapple with new and perplexing issues. Perhaps with Pope Francis’ sentiments we can surmount our personal beliefs or mistrust of government, with a just faith in science and its proven record of helping protect those we love: ourselves, our family, and our fellow man.  Can there be a better resolution for the New Year?

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.




More From This Section