Sunday, October 18, 2015

On Mandatory Vaccinations, Protect Everyone’s Right to Object, Not Just Religionists’ Rights

New Jersey has long allowed parents to opt their schoolchildren out of mandatory vaccinations for religious reasons. But NJ legislators are moving to restrict that practice.

As Susan K. Livio reports for NJ Advance Media for

Over the tearful objections of parents who accused lawmakers of religious persecution, a state Senate panel voted today to make it harder for school children to skip vaccinations because of religious beliefs.

Since 2008, parents in New Jersey have needed only to submit a letter stating vaccines violate their religion in order for their kids to be exempt, without explaining how or why. Vaccines for nearly 9,000 students in the 2013-14 academic year were waived for religious reasons, compared to 1,641 in the 2005-06 school year.

With the outbreak in January of measles at Disneyland in California still fresh in people's minds, state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), said he sponsored the legislation because "it is too easy" for parents to cloak their philosophical grounds behind religious beliefs. The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, which Vitale chairs, voted 5-2 to pass the bill.

A parent's notarized letter must explain "the nature of the person's religious tenet or practice that is implicated by the vaccination and how the administration of the vaccine would violate, contradict or otherwise be inconsistent with that tenet or practice," according to the bill (S1147). The statement also most [sic] show the tenet "is consistently held by the person," and is not merely "an expression of that person's political, sociological, philosophical or moral views, or concerns related to the safety of efficacy of the vaccination."

I left these comments:

Though the issue is complex, I support, in principle, the state’s right to impose mandatory vaccinations related to certain dangerous communicable diseases. While people have a right to decide what to put or not put into their own bodies, that right ends when one’s refusal to be vaccinated (or refusal to vaccinate one’s child) for other than medically valid reasons endangers the physical safety of others. No one has the right to endanger a child or others whom one may come into public or private contact with. Clearly, there is no right to endanger others. (The same principle applies to all rights: E.G., you have a right to drink alcohol, but not to drink and drive; a right to free speech, but not to start a panic by yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Etc. Likewise, the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion ends when one’s religious exercise violates the rights of others, as when Islamists sexually mutilate young girls.)
That said, I object to laws carving out exemptions based only on religious beliefs. What about people of reason who object based on rational convictions? If we’re going to carve out exemptions, then why shouldn’t reasons based on “political, sociological, philosophical or moral views, or concerns related to the safety of efficacy of the vaccination” count any less than religious reasons?

It doesn’t take a legal or constitutional scholar to understand that a strictly religious exemption violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Founders used freedom of religion and freedom of conscience interchangeably. Clearly, freedom of conscience is the broader term, and the Founders sought to protect everyone’s freedom to live by their convictions, whether religious or secular. Religion has no monopoly on such spiritual matters. That’s why the First Amendment protects not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion. By carving out only a religious exemption, the law is in effect sanctioning religious over non-religious beliefs, a clear—albeit back-door—establishment of religious over non-religious beliefs.

The religious exemption also violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The government should never discriminate for or against any individual or segment of the population in the enforcement of its lawmaking function. Rather, it should protect everyone’s rights equally and at all times. It’s not only a legal and constitutional matter, in my view, but also a matter of fundamental fairness to extend the exemption to all, or to none.



My statement that “I support, in principle, the state’s right to impose mandatory vaccinations” should not be construed to imply that I support mandatory vaccinations for measles or any other disease. I’m not a medical expert, and I have no particular opinion on any particular vaccine. My point is that the government, in its primary role of rights-protector, should have the power to mandate vaccinations for the same reason it should have the power to quarantine infected people rather than release them into the general population—to prevent one person from passing on a demonstrably deadly or crippling disease to unsuspecting others. But as Dave of NJ points out, “you have to prove there truly is a threat” before mandating any vaccine (or quarantine). And such threats can and do arise. Who would be against stopping a repeat of the catastrophic 1918 Flu Pandemic, if a simply vaccine were available?

That clarification aside, my main point of contention is that any right of exemption should apply equally to everyone.  

Related Reading:

Two Views on Religious Exemptions from Anti-Discrimination Laws

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