Bioethics Blogs

Vaccine Exemptions and the Church-State Problem

The current measles outbreak has brought public attention to the ease with which vaccine exemptions are available. As the media continually inform us, 48 states allow for religious exemptions, while 19 states also offer exemptions based on some sort of personal philosophy. The New York Times featured a snarky column by Ginia Belafonte dismissing most religious claims by pointing out that “the Bible, the Quran and the texts of Sanskrit were all obviously written before the creation of vaccines.” By that standard, Jewish males would have no obligation to cover their heads (a relatively late development in Judaism) and Catholics would have no opinion on abortion (not mentioned in the New Testament).

On CNN, a commentator was loudly protesting nonreligious exemptions. According to him, religious exemptions were okay, but personal exemptions were wrong. He kept complaining that these parents didn’t even have a note from their pastor attesting that they were church members or explaining why their religion opposed vaccinations. They could just “show up” somewhere and claim some philosophical objection, “and that’s that.” He wanted to restrict exemptions only to those with clearly defined religious beliefs, but his tirade just served to highlight why the current state of affairs is problematic. We cannot constitutionally privilege religious motivations.

From one perspective, religious exemptions would seem to be about free exercise—the state shouldn’t make you go against your religious beliefs, at least not without a strong reason. But any time the state offers an exemption, it runs into establishment clause issues as well. If the state is supposed to be neutral on issues of religion, why should it offer exemptions based on religious grounds and not on equally serious philosophical or personal grounds?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.