Vaccine Religious Exemptions & Tests Of Faith: Querying the US Constitutional Bounds of Protected Rights

Vaccines. A current debate. But alas, a debate not at all the focus of this particular piece. In fact, as most other readers may have postulated by the title, you are likely considering that the central idea this article shall concern will be religious exemptions for vaccines and US Constitutional Law. In fact, this is so; vaccines are a part of modern life in most nations, and those families seeking religious exemptions in the US draw from the world’s numerous faiths as well.

Cholera Vaccine. by Lars Kristian Fleming

Cholera Vaccine.
Image Credit: Lars Kristian Fleming

In New York State, parents wishing to have their children forego the customary vaccinations because of religious belief must undergo a “Sincerity Test” in order to be eligible for vaccine exemption. While it is merely an urban legend and longstanding American cultural myth that there was ever a legalized, clearly delineated (or even stated) separation of Church and State in the US Constitution and associated rules and laws, there is in fact a protection of adherents to all faiths, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Jainist, Hindu, or even Satanist.

That protection is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In no clearer language could the torch-bearers of American Sentiment and Rule of Law have been clearer in their intentions; the people of the Nation shall be respected, when it concerns the free practice of their various (not enumerated or limited) faiths. In fact, this article focuses squarely on constitutional law and Sincerity Tests, rather than than the merits or hazards of childhood vaccines; sorry to disappoint if you were expecting something more dramatic, perhaps a paper taking a stronger stance, one way or the other?

The Constitution Protets US Citizens' Rights. Image Credit: sarowen

The Constitution Protects US Citizens’ Rights.
Image Credit: sarowen

In no way shall the author attempt to undertake this quite different task; that’s for a different writer, a different journal piece. Perhaps the same writer, a different time, even? Perhaps not. Either way, it’s outside the scope of this piece.

The stark question remains, whether we love and trust vaccines or loathe and regard the lot of them as poison: Can a municipality, state, or Federal authority administer a “test of faith?” Whether lawful and legal or not, certainly most of us do not definitively know the answer, one way or the other. A first objection might be that even if there are no such enumerated or granted or assumed powers, such powers may exist in time of National Emergency.

In fact, this is likely true. Let’s use a 1962 scenario: If there were bombers from QuintreNooNoon about to hit our coastal cities (yes; a deliberately outmoded notion cited), Civil Defense would demand citizens stay at home, get to shelters, or evacuate right away. Unless the church or temple was also a designated shelter, which many may in fact be, going to such Places of Divinity might be against the law at such times.

Bombers Were the Bane of 1960s Calmness in the USA.

Bombers Were the Bane of 1960s Calmness in the USA.

But faiths are not dumb; from Jews and Christians to Buddhists and secular humanists and other adherents to non-deified faith in rationality and the progress of thinking humanity, there is no religion that does not intelligently allow the breaking of one rule to follow a more important one. And in this case that Most Essential Rule is keeping everyone alive and safe.

Such measures as Civil Defense actions are clearly and undeniably for the safety of the citizens, and have no political tone or context. Such edicts directed at the American public would almost certainly restrict how people might practice their faith, at least temporarily. However, there is no test involved, and when the risk is real and undeniable, it seems all faiths allow for putting Life of the People first, and for the State to intervene in people’s daily lives and matters that are usually forbidden territory. Of course, in this instance all Americans of ALL faiths are dealt with in the same manner, another key legal protection we are all granted under the 14th Amendment: “Equal protection under the law for all Citizens.”

Air Raid Tunnels Protected People During WW II. Image Credit: DiscDan

Air Raid Tunnels Protected People During WW II.
Image Credit: DiscDan

Of course, the focus of this article, religious vaccination exemption tests for parents of young children, is a quite different issue, and must be considered distinctly. Could vaccinations be ordered by the Health Department in the event of a National Crisis, such as a fast-spreading pandemic for which there might exist a provably effective, affordable vaccine that could easily be developed and deployed? Surely, any sane individual would consider anything otherwise as a betrayal of the health and future of the people.

However, under ordinary circumstances, when there is no Declaration of War, pandemic, or other crisis, either natural disaster or calamity or due to people’s actions or errors, one rightly questions whether New York State is overstepping its bounds, transgressing the sacred, protected boundaries established by the US Constitution, in ordering a religious test for any matter, public or private.

This debate could have arisen over any State-mandated citizen action, not necessarily vaccines. That this issue arose around an already hotly debated subject may, in fact, shield the truly onerous nature of such Faith Tests from non-obfuscated public view by the masses.


Needles Aren’t the Issue.
Image Credit: Dr.-Partha-Sarathi-Sahana

If it were the case that an un-vaccinated child endangers the entire population of students by remaining unvaccinated, then this would also be within the government’s purview to demand certain actions of its Citizens, trying to accommodate religious need, but ultimately caving to a more vital need: Keeping the population safe and healthy. However, this situation has not obtained; possibly if large pockets of urban citizens stop vaccinating one day, perhaps that might generate such an issue under certain circumstances. Historically, this has not yet happened in any identifiable and significant manner.

We are not at the point, with regard to any vaccination for any disease, where non-vaccination would have socially destabilizing effects or endanger Americans. And, even if we were, NYS’s claim of a right to a religious test still seems outside of the boundaries established as rightly those of the Citizens that are to be protected, not to be trod upon by other Citizens, people of foreign lands, states, municipalities, unions, groups, or even the Federal Government itself, in all its different auspices and contacts with each Citizen.

Even having religious authorities step in as a sort of mediator to establish who passes a religious test seems still too cozy an arrangement; surely the State is then relying on religious authority as to whether a supposed adherent to such faith is actually faithful. The State is still administering a religious test by proxy. And, even if we were to deny this fact, the state is still carrying out administrative decisions based on a religious test, regardless of its origin.

Obelisk at Vatican by Dennis Jarvis

Obelisk at Vatican by
Dennis Jarvis

Is this practice, in any clear way, at odds with the First Amendment? How might these tests interfere with a citizen’s right to freely practice their religion? To assess the ways in which such Faith Tests might violate citizens’ rights, we must think more deeply, and consider various scenarios in which these religious examinations may do so.

Would every rabbi or minister, even of the same exact denomination, agree as to what precisely constitutes a faithful individual? Faith is a highly personal aspect of who we all are, and having to establish and definitively prove  that our faith is sincere, consistent with doctrine, and actually the true reason to choose not to vaccinate our kids, is both ludicrous, and outside the bounds of what is ethical or even sensible. But, most importantly with respect to this discussion,  does this rise to the level of keeping someone from practicing their faith?

Merely having to submit to a Faith Test as the definite outcome of choosing to file for a religious exemption for kids’ vaccinations neutralizes citizens’ rights to practice their faith without evaluation or scrutiny. When did the State get in the business of deciding who is TRULY religious; can a wrong decision hamper a person’s rights to practice their faith freely?

It’s far beyond the purview of the State of New York, the State of Vermont, in fact any US state, to establish a religious test, or even work with an established religion to get their assessment of a Citizen’s level of faithfulness. Should it be Pass/Fail? A letter grade? Default to the precision of a numerical percentage of valid faith? Is this not the place of the Creator, in most religious cosmologies?  Isn’t this the harshest judging of all, having to submit to our fellow man for the delivery of a verdict of whether we are religious enough?

Vaccination is not the primary issue in my thinking; the denial of parents’ rights to practice their faith as they see fit, without challenge by the state, in fact, is.

Do there even exist legitimate grounds for rejection of vaccines based on faith? Jehovah’s Witnesses believe only in praying over a sick person. Catholics may have moral issue with the use of vaccines produced with human fetal tissue. Though not a faith exactly, secular humanism is a way of life; the rational secular humanist may be concerned because she’s read that vaccines are not thoroughly tested, and have many known, reported, and documented potential side-effects.

What about the Satanist? How does their faith fit in? One can only guess. Perhaps they feel that the body of evidence suggests that a developing infant, toddler, and small child have a higher chance of negative impact, and delaying the vaccines would lead to a stronger, more robust child, and weakness is against their law? Who knows.

"Satanism FAIL" Image Credit: Ted Majo

“Satanism FAIL”
Image Credit: Ted Majo

And what about the great many people who practice yoga and meditation daily, eat an organic vegan (Sattvic) diet, and consider themselves, “Spiritual”, but essentially practice (an often) non-deified Buddhist or Hindu-derived way of life,  or even newcomers to such faiths, those who were born adherents to other religious or no religions at all? Are these group likely to be marginalized because their lives do not fit any of the pre-defined boxes quite so well as more traditionally-oriented Citizens?

What about those parents, who are less educated, and by life’s circumstances (and often poverty and struggle), could not stay close with their respective Churches, Synagogues, and Temples, or even secular schools, for that matter? What about those who believe (as many Jews, Catholics, and Hindus I know do), that personal worship is best, and that organized religious is not quite their thing?

NYC Rabbi. Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

NYC Rabbi.
Image Credit: Thomas Hawkt

Some people did not have the time to learn to read, even with a strong will to do so; it’s a sad truth, but it does happen that kids have to endure gripping poverty, often taking care of younger (or even older disabled) siblings, moving from shelter to shelter, and are in such a high state of constant anxiety that all but the most basic learning is dampened, as would be expected when focus is scattered.

Such Americans with backgrounds that are not quite so rosy might still have Strong Faith, truly as close to the Book (whichever book) and live that Truth each day, but may have trouble articulating those Ideas and Feelings to a Sincerity Tester. Such people may have the most beautifully brilliant, perfect faith of all, however solely the dominion of their own memory and Divinity. Aren’t we punishing them, limiting their choices, based on their past? Does it not seem out of place to judge, even? And does not this example demonstrate that such tests are essentially junk?

To be quite clear, it isn’t really anyone’s business, at all, in what ways we are religious. Such questions by the state should be a relic of our not-so-distant past. Religious tests in the United States of America should go the way of Literacy Tests and other misused tools that should never have been.

If you’re arguing that it’s all for the Public Good, then of course we need a direct order based on an emergency, not an established procedure for handling religious tests of any nature. Dispensing rights is not the place of any of the states of the Union. Of course, NYS is trying to maintain that applicants are sincere and forthright, but in the process of doing so, the state breaks laws that are more central to the core thinking of what, exactly, America is all about, at its best, in its truest form.

"Sadhu in Nepal." Image Credit: Kiril Rusev

A sadhu at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal
Image Credit: Kiril Rusev

Maybe the State of New York could have a “Morality Exemption?”, rather than a religious one?

Then, parents or guardians could object based on principles, whether drawn from religious faith, life experience, personal research, just a parental hunch, or all of the above. It would be legal, after all, and New York State is presently seeking to make everything more inclusive and non-preferential, so it makes more sense than the present system, which penalizes both followers of organized religions, as well as “spiritual” Americans not affiliated with any specific faith, yet still strongly moral individuals. At the very least, such an exemption would be a legal and lawful test, without treading on the Constitution in any manner. If the reader is thinking this is silly legalism, it is not. Spend some time daydreaming of the implications and slippery slope we’ve been living with.

Now, the above ideas are based on my own mentation and practice of philosophical inquiry into a matter of public interest, considering morality as well as the Color of Law in American culture and tradition. However, I’m not a Constitutional expert, nor a member of the Bar Association, but rather merely a concerned citizen with a mind and heart, an uninvolved bystander observing the fray, if you will.

 Matt Wade

The Stately Supreme Court
Image Credit: Matt Wade

But if we consider the words of Supreme Court Justices on this matter, voices many seek to hear when looking for guidance, we learn that states do, in fact, hold police powers over the people with regard to vaccination. This was established clearly in Jacobson v. Massachusetts way back in 1905.

However, does that ruling provide the right to administer or grade Faith Tests, or even receive such services and results, from religious authorities, concerning a Citizen?   Definitely, the answer is, not in any sense. Do any of the Justices in the ruling mention Faith Tests, even?  Apparently, no, this was not the issue at hand at the turn of the twentieth century. Nor have such topics as Faith Tests been addressed in Supreme Court cases focusing solely on this one single (significant!)  issue, a particularly relevant footnote in the evolving vaccine debate and discussion in America today.

Authored by D Alban.

(C) 2018 Unending Health Quest, H Miller, D Alban

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