America, well before the founding of the United States, was a place for people to escape religious persecution in their native countries.
In keeping with that history, the right to exercise one’s religious beliefs without persecution was among the fundamental rights granted to citizens of the United States.
With that freedom so deeply rooted in our history and law, it would seem a difficult notion for government to impose its will on citizens when it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Yet while government has an obligation to protect individual rights, it also has an obligation to act on behalf of the best interests of the people as a whole.
So where are we going with this?
Right now, New York state requires all children in New York to receive immunizations from poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, HiB, hepatitis B, and varicella.
The reason is simple. Vaccinations are vital to stopping the spread of these diseases and for preventing some diseases once nearly wiped out from recurring again in society.
But some people refuse to have their children vaccinated based on religious grounds. New York accommodates them by allowing parents to claim a religious exemption for vaccinating their children.
DUMPING THE RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION TO VACCINATIONS
But with the recent national outbreak of measles and whooping cough, diseases long-controlled by vaccination, New York lawmakers are seeking to make it more difficult for parents to be able to send their unvaccinated children to school, where these children can potentially spread diseases to their classmates and others.
A bill (A2371/S2994) pending in the Legislature would remove all non-medical exemptions from that vaccination requirement, including the exemption for religious reasons. The only exemption that would remain would be one in which a doctor certifies that immunization may be detrimental to a child’s health.
The bill is sound public health legislation and needs to be approved.
But what about that conflict with people’s religious beliefs?
Courts have historically upheld the government’s ability to limit a right when there is a “compelling State interest.”
Since 1905, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of states to mandate the smallpox vaccine, limiting the spread of serious communicable diseases has been defined as a “compelling State interest,” according to the National Vaccine Information Center.
And the fact of the matter is that most major mainstream religions have no prohibition against vaccinations. Some even go so far as to promote the belief that the welfare of the community supersedes the welfare of the individual, and therefore actively support vaccinations.
How do we know this? Because someone checked it out.
MOST RELIGIONS DON'T OBJECT TO VACCINATIONS
Vaccine magazine — one of the nation’s most highly respected and peer-reviewed medical journals for vaccine research — looked into several major religions to determine their views on vaccinations.
It found that Judaism, for example, has long advocated for vaccination, even before immunization was widely available.
Similarly, none of the many Christian churches have specific scriptural or canonical objection to the use of vaccines. The Catholic Church even believes it’s immoral not to vaccinate.
Islam, the report found, seems to outright endorse vaccines, rather than just not be opposed to them.
Hindus advocate respect for life and support technology that allows people to live longer and healthier. None of its major sects have ever expressed an objection with vaccination, according to the report.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have softened their objections to vaccinations over the years and now allow them, the report states. Even the Amish church, rumored to be against vaccinations, has no prohibition against vaccines.
In situations where dietary restrictions based on religious beliefs might cause an issue — such as in vaccines manufactured with prohibited foods like pork and beef — that problem can often be gotten around by administering the vaccines via a shot rather than orally.
The truth is that most of those who claim their religious beliefs prohibit them from vaccinating their children are either on the fringe of their respective religions or are operating without the facts.
So the state’s concern about violating someone’s religious rights by eliminating the religious exemption is small, while the societal need to immunize children and the general public against potentially deadly diseases is enormous.
This is one piece of legislation the state should have no problem approving quickly.