Clearing Some of the Confusion
Religious Exemptions: Clearing Some of the Confusion
I used to do 3-hour consultations introducing the law on vaccines and religion and providing detailed information about how to write a legally sound statement of religious beliefs opposed to vaccines. After two decades of working with religious exemptions in about three dozen different exemption contexts and sub-contexts, some things stand out as either common points of confusion or information people need to know to make effective religious exemption decisions.
Exemptions apply to vaccines required for daycare, school and college; for military and civilian employees; for immigrants; for children of parents in child custody disputes; and for international travelers. And there are many sub-categories within these broader categories. In most states, daycare and school religious exemptions don’t require parents to explain their religious beliefs opposed to vaccines. But in two states and other contexts, religious exemption applicants are required to explain their religious beliefs to get the exemption. Instructions about how to write a legally sound statement of religious beliefs opposed to vaccines is beyond the scope of an article, but the information below may nevertheless be helpful to people in those situations in particular, and to anyone else concerned with religious exemptions in the U.S. more generally.
“What are the legal requirements for a vaccine religious exemption?” This is not a short-answer question. But the starting place is that the beliefs must be “religious in nature” (as the law defines that) and “sincerely held.” These are objective standards, which means we don’t get to decide whether our own beliefs fit these terms; the law decides that. How? The boundaries are set out in legal precedent, sometimes called case law, which comes from past court cases where courts have applied the law to a variety of different situations. Each of these legal precedent court cases serves as a point of reference we can compare to our own situation to see how the law should be applied. Legal precedent must be researched ongoing, as it’s constantly being updated and, in some cases, is revised or even replaced. My e-book provides a good starting point to the precedent on vaccine religious exemptions (vaccinerights.com).
Religious freedom is a First Amendment federal Constitutional right, and a right in all state constitutions as well. The law protects religious beliefs and practices. And this is a powerful right. But there aren’t any absolute rights in our legal system other than the right to think whatever you want to think (though we may rest assured that they’re working on ways to take that right away, too <sigh>).
When public health and religious freedom conflict, public health will always win, though it’s sometimes more a question of balancing conflicting needs than determing which one wins absolutely. But the problem with public health trumping religious freedom isn’t with the law, it’s that health policy and law are driven by a corrupt medical/pharmaceutical system. If forcing someone to be vaccinated over their religious objections really would save lives, many of us would be all for it. But it rarely if ever actually does or would. Vaccines are more harmful than the diseases, emergencies are declared where none actually exists, authorities pretend vaccines are effective when they offer little or no real benefit.
As a general rule, religious objections and exemptions can be overridden during a declared emergency, should a health authority deem that necessary. But as we’ve seen recently (and are likely to see again very soon), emergencies can be declared whether they’re real or not. Either way, once an emergency is declared, our rights diminish while health authorities’ powers expand. You may insist that there really isn’t an emergency, and you may be absolutely right, but what changes rights and powers is the declaration of an emergency, not our awareness of the reality. Worse, some people supporting the pro-vaccine agenda step over the law—some knowingly, some unknowingly—to achieve their “public health” goals. Sadly, having a right doesn’t necessarily mean you get to exercise it. But knowing your rights is a necessary starting point to maximize your chance of success.
We get to decide what we believe, but the law decides what beliefs qualify for a legal right. A belief that’s “religious” to us personally may or may not be “religious” for legal exemption purposes. So, if you’re seeking an exemption where you’re required to explain your religious beliefs, you’d be wise to find out how the law works first. You can’t “un-ring the bell,” as the saying goes, can’t come back later and say, “oops, pretend I didn’t say that, here’s what I meant to say…” It’s important to get this one right the first time. So, learn about your rights before going forward with your exemption request.
In religious beliefs statements, it’s just as important what not to say as it is what to say. Your stated beliefs must meet the legal requirements, but you should also avoid saying things that don’t meet the requirements, as they can backfire on you. For example, vaccine harm is a documented reality, but it isn’t a protected religious belief. The law sees science and religion as mutually exclusive realms. When people refer to vaccine harm in a religious belief statement, they risk giving the impression that harm is the real or primary objection, and that the religious beliefs are either disingenuous or a secondary concern. This can cost you the exemption. So, it’s best to leave out anything that doesn’t help you get the exemption.
Some people are frustrated that the law gets to decide whether their beliefs are “religious.” But it only does this with respect to legal rights, and for that purpose, the law has to do this. If we got to decide, any belief could instantly become a qualifying religious belief, which wouldn’t make sense, of course. Every person would be “a law unto himself,” as an 1800’s U.S. Supreme Court case put it. The good news is that the law defines “religious” (for legal purposes only) broadly. The bad news is that there are pitfalls that can cost you the exemption if you’re not aware of them. In my decades of exemption experience, I’ve observed that most people’s common-sense approach to writing a statement of religious beliefs is just not fully consistent with the legal requirements. So, some pre-exemption education is in order for those seeking to maximize their chance of success.
It doesn’t matter whether an exemption applicant belongs to an organized religion, nor which one if they do. It only matters if the person’s stated religious beliefs meet the legal requirements. There are probably still one or two states with outdated religious exemption laws that require church membership for daycare and school exemptions, but those laws are arguably not enforceable, as the church requirement is unconstitutional. (I’ve been able to help people overcome these barriers in the past.)
Technically, having received vaccines in the past doesn’t automatically disqualify you from getting a religious exemption today. If you meet the legal requirements today, you qualify for the exemption today. But past vaccines can present a problem, especially if you’re gotten a vaccine recently, because it’s a conflict. “How can you say you’re opposed to vaccines on religious grounds when you just got a flu shot last fall?” This raises a question about the sincerity requirement. But if there is a reasonable explanation for the apparent conflict, then the sincerity requirement is met. A complete explanation is beyond the scope of an article, but the successful “reasonable explanations” I’ve seen over the years fall into 4 distinct categories. The legal precedent gives us a way out of this one. But in sum, what matters is that you have a reasonable explanation for the apparent discrepancy.
Some religious exemptions are in state law (e.g., daycare, school, and college, except for military schools), while others are in federal laws (e.g., military; immigration; employee religious accommodation under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964). The specific procedure for getting an exemption will vary from context to context, situation to situation, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But as to what beliefs qualify for a religious exemption, that falls primarily under federal Constitutional law, so it’s the same everywhere in the country in any context, regardless of whether the starting place is a state or federal law.
Sometimes, there isn’t a religious exemption law that applies to a situation at all. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no right to refuse vaccines on religious grounds, only that you have to approach the matter in a different way. For example, few states have exemption laws for employees, but when employers have 15 or more employees, employees can refuse vaccines required for their employment on religious grounds under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a “discrimination in the workplace” law. Another situation concerns college students doing internships or clinical rotations in local hospitals required for their college degree or certification. State exemption laws arguably don’t apply to these situations, but Title VII has language that does apply (I’ve assisted many college students successfully in the past in this situation). There’s even a legal argument for the proposition that parents have a right to refuse vaccines on religious exemptions for their children’s daycare and school enrollment even in states that don’t have a religious exemption law. As a practical matter, asserting this right would very likely require a lawsuit to test it, and would just as likely involve one or more levels of appeals before the issue was finally resolved. But a clear legal argument exists to support this.
The law protects religious beliefs and practices. The starting place is the First Amendment “free exercise” of religion in the U.S. Constitution. But the Constitution itself doesn’t tell us anything about our rights, it only provides the starting point, a list of categories such as religious freedom, free speech, freedom of the press, due process, etc. So, before we can say whether or how such rights apply to any given specific situation, we must research the legal precedent to see how the courts have interpreted and applied these rights to various situations, and from there “argue” that we have that right in our specific situation because it’s similar or analogous to the legal precedent.
If you belong to an organized religion, it doesn’t matter whether you have support from your religious leader, nor whether anyone else in the organization agrees with you. You could be literally the only Catholic, Jew, Muslim, etc. opposed to vaccines on religious grounds, but that doesn’t matter, legally. What matters is whether your beliefs, your interpretation of your religion if you belong to one, meets the legal requirements.
If doesn’t matter whether you are, generally, a religious person. Again, it only matters whether your beliefs opposed to vaccines meet the legal requirements, whether they are protected by law.
For legal purposes, the word “religious” is quite broad. Some over the years have said, “Alan, I’m not religious, but I consider myself to be deeply spiritual; does that count?” Yes! The scope of “religious” for legal purposes includes matters of conscience. It’s possible to be an atheist with a matter of conscience that is a legally protected religious belief. But this doesn’t mean that any belief qualifies. There are categories of beliefs that specifically do not qualify: scientific (including medical), philosophical and political. How the law defines and applies these categories is a legal precedent research question, but many people’s common-sense approach to writing religious belief statements results in a statement with a combination of qualifying and non-qualifying beliefs, the latter falling into one or more of these non-qualifying categories. The most successful statements include only beliefs that are religious as the law defines that term for exemption purposes.
Can you have religious beliefs opposed to only some vaccines? Yes, if you have a qualifying belief that only applies to some vaccines. The only real-life exampleI know is with people with a moral or religious objection to abortion. Some vaccines are cultured or tested on aborted fetal cells. So, this belief alone wouldn’t exempt a person from all vaccines. If one wants to avoid all vaccines, this belief could be part of their statement of religious beliefs, but they’d need to have at least one additional religious belief that’s opposed to all vaccines.
The above is only a starting point, but I hope you’ve found it helpful. For more information about how the U.S. legal systems work, a summary of some of the important state and federal court cases (legal precedent) on vaccine religious exemptions, and an introduction to the various vaccine exemption contexts and sub-contexts, consider purchasing The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions (https://www.vaccinerights.com/e-book.html), an e-book by the nation’s leading vaccine legal exemption expert (if I may say so myself). If you have to explain your religious beliefs opposed to vaccines to get an exemption (something the e-book doesn’t cover) and would like help from someone with in-depth experience in the field, email me for information about my religious exemption manual. It provides detailed information not available anywhere else about how to write a legally sound statement of religious beliefs opposed to vaccines, how to handle religious exemption interviews, and a detailed overview of how the law works with religion and vaccines. I also have separate employee and immigration exemption manuals for people dealing with exemptions in these more complicated situations.
Alan Phillips, J.D.
Vaccine Rights Legal Expert
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