Tag Archives: public health

Religious Exemption – What Religious Exemption?

I keep hearing about people claiming they have a religious objection to (1) wearing a mask and/or (2) getting a COVID vaccination. I have asked the Twitterverse to identify the religion that contains such prohibitions in its doctrine, so far without response.

To be clear, I am not writing this to belittle anyone’s religious faith. I write to raise the highly relevant question in the pandemic of what exactly qualifies as a valid “religious exemption” to masking and/or vaccination.

My thesis is that (1) the sudden discovery during the pandemic of one’s “religious doctrine” is just too convenient and is not a valid claim; (2) to make a valid religious exemption claim, at least two things must be demonstrated: (a) an established discoverable documented statement of clear doctrine opposing the use of masks/vaccinations to prevent/limit disease on the basis of an identified moral/ethical code, and (2) evidence that the claimant has in actual fact practiced the doctrines of the asserted religious for an extended period prior to the pandemic.

Point (1) should not be that hard. Established religions that have such doctrines can be expected to have produced writings/speeches/published practice directives that make these assertions and tie them to some “higher power” ethical controlling principles. I am not aware that such religions exist. Christian Science may be one, though I am not clear that it actually rejects vaccination conceptually. But I am not an expert on religions and there may be others. Waiting.

Point (2) may be much harder for many people. I do not accept that a person may make a valid religious exemption claim if they suddenly discover that their “religion” has some doctrine that may be used as an exemption support, and they then decide to assert it when the reality is that they never followed the doctrine before.

I am astonished and perplexed to learn that the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has adopted as policy in its Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination the “principle” that in practice means a religious exemption is in most cases whatever the person says it is, regardless of past practice of adherence or any other considerations. I am not going to elaborate on my judgment of that – if you’re interested, you can find the details here: https://bit.ly/3yUWlIh I do believe it is conceptually and otherwise preposterous.

But that such muddled thinking is part of government policy, at least in one domain, it is small wonder that people are using religious exemption claims to cover their political or merely ignorant resistance to public health measures that have been shown to limit COVID infection spread. The resisters – the anti-makers and anti-vaxxers – are not only dying at much higher rates than the vaccinated, but they are facilitating the “evolution” of the virus into more virulent strains, such as the Delta Variant that is ravaging the country now. Breakthrough infections, with sometimes deadly outcomes, are increasing also. This is virtually certain to result from vast numbers of unvaccinated people walking among us.

My limited understanding of religion is that any legitimate one has an ethical/moral foundation of principles to live by. Whether it’s one deity or many, a set of principles to live by is the central idea. If so, I can’t help wondering what foundation of ethical/moral principles the people who suddenly found religion think they are asserting. Their new “religion” has the effect of exposing themselves and, worse, others to a deadly disease. What principle of ethics/morality justifies that? How do they square their supposed adherence to a set of ethical/moral principles while basically lying about their “sincerely held religious beliefs?”

Compartmentalized Thinking Can Kill

Readers of this blog know that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU primarily uses the legal system to protect everyone’s rights, sometimes in unpopular causes. ACLU recognizes the difficult truth that if one person’s rights can be taken away, then all peoples’ rights can be taken.

Compartmentalized thinking is one of the ways we are able to look away from wrongs – it’s “them,” not “us;” “I can’t afford to get involved so I won’t think about it;” and “maybe I’ll engage later/contribute later/pay attention later, but right now I have other important things on my mind.” And many other examples. Such thinking also enables our ability to block out unpleasant thoughts and to resist the inexorable logic of exponential growth.

Compartmentalized thinking also enables us to support abstract ideas that block our awareness of the interconnectedness of events and the forces that shape our society. I read a piece from ACLU that delivered this point with unexpected force today. https://bit.ly/2wz18oq

ACLU reports that “A group of over 450 public health experts signed a public letter today warning that widespread transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus within the United States is “inevitable.” Their letter urges government decisionmakers to enact policies that will have the best chance of minimizing the effects of the virus: those based strictly on the best available scientific information, and those that are imposed in a fair and equitable fashion.”

Some will react to this with “uh oh, here they go again, worrying about peoples’ rights when we should be focused on survival.” That is, perhaps, an understandable response, but read on.

ACLU acknowledges that sometimes individual rights must yield to the “greater good.” However,

The public health experts remind us in their letter that there is a flip side to the limits on liberty …. Just as a disease cares little for our notions of individualism … neither does it care about other artifacts of our individualistic society, such as differences in wealth, status, ethnicity, or immigration status. If the authorities want to be effective in limiting the transmission of this virus, they will need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable people in our society.

A disease does not care who has health insurance, for example. You may have the best insurance in the world, but if 30 million others who are part of your bio-mass are not getting tested or treated because they lack insurance, that will increase your risk. Similarly, if members of immigrant communities fear they’re going to fall into the hands of an ICE officer if they seek treatment, that is a public health problem for all of us. A disease does not care who is undocumented.

In their letter, the public health experts call for officials to work with insurance companies to make sure that lack of insurance and high costs do not become a barrier to testing and treatment. They call for health care facilities to be declared as “immigration enforcement-free zones” — a step that has been taken before during hurricanes and other emergencies….

The experts draw attention to the need to support minimum-wage workers and others who live on the economic margins, cannot telecommute, and cannot afford to lose their job. While an office worker who is starting to feel ill may be able to self-isolate, someone in a more precarious situation may calculate the different risks they face in their life and conclude their only option is to hide their condition and head to work. A disease does not care whose employers offer good sick leave.

Finally, “Political leaders need to scrupulously ensure that their public messages are accurate and guided by science. There is a sad history of responses to emergencies that are hindered by politics,” citing  China’s response to SARS as well as coronavirus and the Soviet government’s response to Chernobyl.

Finally, the experts echo some of the longstanding lessons of their field: Voluntary self-isolation measures are more likely to induce cooperation — and therefore be effective — than coercive measures. Mandatory restrictions such as quarantines and travel bans “can be effective only under specific circumstances” and “must be guided by science, with appropriate protection of the rights of those impacted.” Those rights include due process rights to appeal confinement and the right to legal counsel. While leaders in outbreaks can be tempted to impose draconian measures as a show of strength, the letter’s signers also remind us that a disease also does not care how tough a leader looks.

The record of the Trump administration, and the President’s repeated comments contradicting the advice of health experts, do not align well with ACLU’s insightful analysis. This has led to numerous mistakes in the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Everyone needs to recognize that just about everything is now connected to just about everything. If society now turns its back on the problems faced by the uninsured and others who are under enormous pressure to survive, we will all pay a dear price. We’re all in this together, like it or not.

Final Note:  Please consider making a contribution to the ACLU. It is fighting for each of us on multiple fronts and needs financial support to continue being an effective force for truth and justice for everyone.