Review of religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate

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After President Joe Biden issued a mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine, many anti-vaxxers looked for religious exemptions so that they would not have to get the vaccine. Although no major religion is opposed to vaccines, people have used religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations in the past, it’s just become more serious these days with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

In the USA, people will use this as a “freedom of religion” cause, claiming that they have some constitutional right to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine with a religious exemption. This is a legal issue, which Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss has addressed these issues several times recently. Although I am not a legal expert, blanket religious exemptions can be rejected without worrying about violating someone’s freedom of religion.

In my previous article about religions and vaccines, it is clear that almost every mainstream religion, from almost all Christian sects to Judaism to Islam, shows unambiguous support of vaccines. And for completeness, I’m going to go through each of these religions and describe their support of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Research into religions and vaccines

Most of my knowledge about religions and vaccines is based on a  systematic review of religious dogma with respect to vaccines and specific components of vaccines. The article was published in the highly respected and peer-reviewed medical journal, Vaccine, one of the top venues for vaccine research.

In the next section, I summarize the study’s information about religion and vaccination – specifically regarding the teachings of many of these religions. If you run across someone claiming that their religion is against vaccinations, you can check here, although, admittedly, the article only covers mainstream religions.

The New York Times, in a review of religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandates, wrote:

(Exemptions) cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious, and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader, but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

Some people probably believe that their religion is opposed to vaccines because they cherry-pick a statement from an obscure extremist in their religion, who does not represent the dogma of the church.

Below, I review each major religion’s views on vaccines in general, plus any specific information about the COVID-19 vaccine which may refute any claim of religious exemptions.

Amish religion

One of the enduring myths of the vaccine deniers is that Amish communities do not get vaccinated. However, there is no prohibition against vaccines by the Amish church, and vaccination rates vary between different communities. And leaders of communities that get hit by a vaccine-preventable disease outbreak are more often accepting of immunization.

Furthermore, they have no prohibition against the COVID-19 vaccine, but the vaccine uptake is low.

religious exemptions COVID-19 vaccine
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Buddhism

Around 1022-1063 CE, a written account described how a Buddhist nun used the process called variolation, which is a form of inoculation. In this case, she ground up smallpox scabs then put them in the nose of non-immune individuals, an early form of nasal vaccine I suppose. The 14th Dalai Lama, the current incumbent, was involved in a polio vaccination program. There are no religious texts or doctrines that oppose vaccines, and predominantly Buddhist countries are rather pro-vaccine.

Recently, the Dalai Lama has stated his strong support of the COVID-19 vaccine.

And Joy Brennan, a religious studies professor at Kenyon College who is Buddhist, sent out this Tweet:

Christianity

According to Grabenstein, most Christian churches have no specific scriptural or canonical objection to the use of vaccines. He included the following Christian churches in the list – Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Amish, Anglican, Baptist, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Congregational, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist (including African Methodist Episcopal), Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

I also found no strictures against the COVID-19 vaccine by any of these churches – more details will be found in specific sections for some of the Christian sects.

Christian Scientists

Christian Scientists (or more formally, Church of Christ, Scientist)  fundamentally believe that diseases are not real, and can be healed with a focused prayer from one of their “practitioners.” Ironically, Christian Scientists do not have rules against vaccination, but it’s often recommended that they pray to be rid of any bad effects of the vaccine.

However, the church has issued a statement that:

On the other hand, our practice isn’t a dogmatic thing. Church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate their children. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church.

In other words, the church expects that its members follow the law and that it does not impose a dogma for a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dutch Reformed Church

Members of the Dutch Reformed Church have had a tradition of refusing vaccines going as far back as the early vaccinations for smallpox in the early 1800s. Most of this early vaccine refusal was because of the observed adverse events with the vaccines of that era (which is still an ongoing issue for vaccine deniers), although it has evolved into the formal belief that vaccines interfere with the relationship with their god.

Some members of the Dutch Reformed Church decline vaccines because it “interferes with divine providence,” while others accept it as a gift from God, Vanderbilt research shows. This may be the only religion that has a doctrinal opposition to vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine. However, the church is mainly in the Netherlands, so I’d be skeptical of any American using it as their reason for a religious exemption.

Hinduism

Hindus advocate for respect for life, and thus, support technology that allows people to live longer and healthier. None of the four major sects of Hinduism have ever stated a concern with vaccination. Moreover, Hindus venerate cows and thus do not eat beef, but no Hindu sect has opposed vaccines that are manufactured from bovine components. According to Grabenstein, “vaccination is widely accepted in predominantly Hindu countries.”

I could find nothing that suggested that Hindu leaders were opposed to any vaccine, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

Photo by David Rodrigo on Unsplash

Islam

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world with over 1.8 billion adherents. Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork, much like Jews. And much like Jewish authorities making broad exceptions to their dietary laws for vaccinations because of their lifesaving value. It is based on the “law of necessity” in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible” in exceptional circumstances.

Numerous Islamic authorities and medical scholars agree that many immunizations are obligatory, when the disease risk is high, far outweighing any risk from the vaccine. As opposed to the formal statements of many churches, Islam seems to actually endorse vaccines rather than just not be opposed to them.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) released information encouraging people to get the vaccine and to take other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses have instructed its adherents to refuse whole blood transfusions and the use of certain blood components, such as red blood cells, plasma, and other components – they consider the use of blood to be a violation of the law of their god.

During the 1920s through the 40s, the church was opposed to vaccination based on their doctrine about human blood. However, by the early 1950s, the church took a neutral stance about vaccinations until the 1990’s when began to acknowledge the clinical value of vaccines.  

As far as I can tell, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to support vaccines including the COVID-19 vaccine.

religious exemptions COVID-19 vaccines
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Judaism

Jews traditionally expect certain actions of their believers to maintain health and that would include vaccination. In addition, Judaism emphasizes the community over the individual in disease prevention, one of the more critical aspects of community-wide vaccinations. In fact, Jewish scholars encouraged smallpox variolation in the era before the availability of vaccines.

In the 1850s, distinguished Rabbi Yisroel Lipshutz described Edward Jenner as a “righteous gentile,” for his efforts in developing smallpox vaccination. (If I were a distinguished rabbi, I would add Jonas Salk and Paul Offit to righteous gentiles, except both of them are Jewish.)

Orthodox Rabbis have set aside Shabbat restrictions on observant Jews to get vaccinated in the not-too-distant past when vaccines were only intermittently available.

One myth, debunked many times, is that because vaccines are often made of pork, and consumption of pork is restricted by Jewish dietary law. However, this prohibition of non-Kosher food, like pork, is usually agreed to mean oral consumption only, not when delivered by injection. Grabenstein concludes that “based on this review, contemporary Jewish vaccine decliners are more likely to cite concerns about vaccine safety than to invoke a specific religious doctrine that has not been considered by acknowledged Jewish scholars.”

There has also been a large amount of misinformation spread that the COVID-19 vaccines are not kosher, but the vaccines don’t contain animal products. Jewish doctors and religious leaders have done much to combat this misinformation. Israel even launched a largely successful campaign to correct false claims that specifically targeted ultra-Orthodox Jews and encouraged vaccination.

LDS religion

The LDS church (formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the adherents are known as Mormons) has stated fairly clearly that it supports the use of vaccines to eliminate preventable infectious diseases in children. In addition, LDS missionaries are sent all over the world, and they are all fully vaccinated, with many vaccines that are only used in tropical areas, before they leave on their missions.

The LDS Church is encouraging (and in a doctrinaire church like the Mormons, that’s just short of requiring) that its missionaries get the vaccine.

Roman Catholicism

As far as I could find, the Catholic Church strongly supports vaccines, with Pope Francis stating that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is an “act of love,” even making it a moral and ethical issue by clearly stating that “there would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious diseases…”

The Catholic Church even supports the use of those vaccines manufactured using permanent cell lines that derive from aborted fetuses. In other words, not only is the Catholic Church not opposed to vaccination, it seems to indicate that it would immoral to not vaccinate. However, this is absolutely not an issue with COVID-19 vaccines (as far as I know).

Sikhs

Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion which arose in the Indian subcontinent, has no rules about vaccines. A study from the University of Michigan showed that Sikh children in India are much more likely to be vaccinated than other children in the area.

Sikh leaders in the USA basically tell their members to follow CDC guidelines for the COVID-19 vaccine.

So what does this mean to Biden’s mandates:

Professor Reiss wrote an article in Harvard Law’s Bill of Health that reviewed some key issues about vaccine mandates and religious exemptions. I think they may be very important in regulating religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine.

  • “Religious freedom is a core value in the United States. This makes policing religious exemptions to vaccination hard – and rightly so. The government policing people’s religion raises a number of thorny issues.”
  • If the standard is a sincere belief, and as I wrote above no major religion is opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine, who is to decide what is above or below that standard. A school principal? An human resource manager at a corporation? One could claim that they have a sincere religious belief against vaccinations, and it will be difficult for anyone, especially public employers, to discriminate against it.
  • Because personal objections to vaccinations are no longer allowed (at least in President Biden’s mandate order), there will be people who attempt to game the system. Professor Reiss wrote an article about Cait Corrigan who offered up several rules on how to get a religious exemption approved. Although in a country with such a profound religious foundation, my view will be unpopular, but this is just more reason to remove the religious exemptions.
  • Professor Reiss also stated, “I have said it before, and will say it again. A public policy that encourages people to lie and advantages the better liars — or those who have access to those who can teach them what to say — is a bad policy. In this case, the policy also benefits anti-vaccine activists exploiting the situation.”

Review of religious exemptions and the COVID-19 vaccine

With mandates for the COVID-19 vaccine gathering steam by private and public (state and Federal) employers, more and more vaccine deniers will be looking for religious exemptions as their method to avoid getting the vaccine.

Some employers are taking a hard line against religious exemptions. United Airlines told workers that those who receive religious exemptions will be placed on unpaid leave at least until new COVID-19 safety and testing procedures are in place.

As you may expect, I am fully behind COVID-19 vaccine mandates. I think employers, like United Airlines, are doing what they can to keep their employees and customers healthy.

But this is not that unusual. Try becoming a physician without every vaccination – you can’t even enter medical school without meeting the “mandatory vaccination” standard. And there are rarely, if ever, personal belief exemptions.

The abuse of religious exemptions to vaccines is not supported by actual reviews of religion and vaccinations. It clearly shows that the major religions of the world all consider vaccines to be supported by the moral teachings of these religions. But given the strength of the “freedom of religion” foundation in this country, I don’t see where we can get rid of religious exemptions. And they will be abused by anti-vaxxers.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!