Allowing Religious Exemptions From COVID-19 Vaccines Is a Mistake

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once recounted how her grandfather experienced a spiritual revelation. When he lacked the money to fulfill his dream of graduating from Stillman College, he was told he could get a scholarship — but only if he wanted to become a Presbyterian minister. “That’s just what I had in mind,” he replied.

Other Americans are hoping that religion can offer them a way to fulfill one of their cherished dreams: avoiding vaccination for COVID-19. They are claiming that they should not have to be inoculated because their faith forbids it.

This assertion didn’t help a nurse at the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center who lost her job for declining the vaccine because of her “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Kaiser Permanente responded with a polite version of “give me a frickin’ break.” Said its chief medical officer, “We believe that misusing the religious exemption to avoid vaccination is disrespectful to those with sincere religious beliefs, and could violate the ethical standards we expect our employees to meet.”

Federal civil rights guidelines advise employers to accommodate the religious obligations of their workers, but it doesn’t compel them to be gullible saps. Companies are entitled to insist that employees provide persuasive evidence that they are acting on the iron imperatives of faith rather than personal whim.

Marshalling such evidence won’t be easy. No major faith bars its followers from being immunized against disease. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, which rejects blood transfusions, and Christian Science, which discourages medical treatment, don’t forbid it.

A lot of the holdouts have never claimed religious objections to other vaccines. Most, it’s safe to say, couldn’t articulate any halfway plausible rationale to refuse.

The San Diego nurse, Victoria Jensen, admitted she had gotten other vaccinations. For this one, her excuse was, “God speaks to me clearly.” Funny — God tells me she’s making that up.

On Thursday, the Biden administration issued a vaccine mandate for workers at companies with 100 or more employees and for health care workers at facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Those mandates, unfortunately, allow religious exemptions, which promise nothing but trouble.

Employers who choose to accommodate religious exemptions face a dilemma. If they try to verify each claim, they have to investigate subjective matters on which they have no expertise. If they accept all claims, they invite every phony and crank to escape a basic measure needed to protect those around them. It would make more sense for the administration to simply forbid such exemptions.

That’s not exactly a radical idea. Mississippi is one of the most conservative states, and one of the most churchgoing. But since 1979, it hasn’t allowed parents to get religious exemptions from the vaccinations required for kids to attend school. Thanks to this policy, it leads the nation in childhood inoculation rates.

Nor is the federal government or any state obliged to grant such accommodations. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom doesn’t mean believers are exempt from laws that apply to everyone else.

To rule otherwise, the court said, would lead to “religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes” and, yes, “compulsory vaccination laws.” The author of the court’s majority opinion? Conservative hero Antonin Scalia.

In some instances, it’s fair and humane not to penalize people for practicing their faith — say, by denying unemployment benefits to someone fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath or by imprisoning committed pacifists for refusing military induction.

But even in those cases, it makes no sense to wave through anyone who says the magic words. The burden should be on those requesting an exemption to show that their objection is sincere, consistent and rooted in religious principles.

When it comes to the COVID-19 shots, though, the number of people who could legitimately qualify is too tiny to be worth the bother. Besides, the need to combat the spread of a virus that has already killed 5 million people around the world is grave enough to overrule even authentic religious qualms, if there is such a thing.

Some people who feel entitled to behave in a grossly selfish manner that endangers others claim the Almighty has granted them permission. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should.

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.