RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS FOR ATHEISTS?!
Yes, It’s Possible! Here’s How…
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A recent alternative news article reported that a town’s Nativity scene was taken down due to complaints from atheists. This reminded me about the curious nature of religious freedom. Atheists complain that laws protect religious beliefs but not their beliefs. But that’s not entirely correct. In fact, it’s possible for an atheist to have a legally valid vaccine religious exemption. Please allow me to explain.
We’re free to believe whatever we choose to believe, but the law decides which beliefs qualify for a legal right, including vaccine religious exemptions. If we got to decide, any belief could be a qualifying religious belief, and that wouldn’t make any sense. The U.S. state and federal legal systems protect religious beliefs and practices, and the law defines the boundaries of that protection.
The starting place is the “free exercise” clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, referring to the free exercise of religion. State constitutions protect religious beliefs and practices, too. No Constitutional rights are absolute, though, and constitutions don’t tell us what the boundaries of our rights are, they only list the freedom categories—religion, speech, etc. The boundaries of our constitutional rights are spelled out in legal precedent, which comes from past court rulings. (For information about how legal precedent is formed and how it applies, see The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions.)
As for the precedent about vaccine religious exemptions, conventional religious beliefs and practices are, of course, protected by law. But the scope of religious protection extends well beyond that. While beliefs that are scientific, philosophical, and political are categorically excluded, matters of conscience are included. Protected religious beliefs include not only theistic beliefs (beliefs that include a belief in God), but also include non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views, ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death.
A 2012 Ohio federal lawsuit illustrates this well. A nurse was fired for refusing her employer’s flu shot. She objected on grounds that included being vegan. As vaccines are cultured on human and animal tissues, and tested on animals, she claimed her vegan beliefs and practices prohibited her from getting a vaccine. The relevant court decision occurred early in the lawsuit, and was only deciding whether the case got thrown out, which would happen is the court deemed “vegan” to be categorically not a protected religious belief or practice; or went forward, if the court ruled that “vegan” could at least potentially be a protected religious belief and practice. The court ruled that “vegan” could be a qualifying religious objection, so the case went forward. If the case didn’t settle, the nurse would have to prove that her particular vegan beliefs met the legal requirements. That question ultimately requires a case-by-case review. The court didn’t say that all vegan beliefs are protected religious beliefs, only that it was a possibility for each vegan, depending on their specific beliefs.
Vegan beliefs vary from vegan to vegan. Some are protected religious beliefs, some aren’t. For example, vegans who believe that it’s morally wrong to end an animal’s life prematurely for their personal benefit may very well have a protected religious belief, if they apply this belief consistently throughout their life; and such a belief could be held by an atheist. Remember this the next time an atheist whines about being discriminated against by the First Amendment “free exercise” of religion for protecting religious beliefs but not their beliefs.
However, if one is a vegan for health reasons (some people claim to have healed from serious chronic illnesses by going vegan), that wouldn’t qualify for a religious exemption. Matters of health, for legal purposes, are objectively scientific in nature, and so are categorically not protected religious beliefs and practices. Nor would framing the belief in terms of religion fix the problem. The belief that “God wants me to be a vegan so I can be healthy” would, despite the reference to God likely not meet the legal requirement, as the issue—health—is objectively scientific in nature despite the framing. I can’t say that it necessarily wouldn’t work in any specific instance, only that it’s a legally risky approach. But those who are vegan for both moral and health reasons would be on strong legal ground if they assert only the moral objections where explaining the beliefs is required to get the exemption.
The scope of legally protected beliefs is quite broad. However, there are many pitfalls to writing a legally sound statement of religious beliefs opposed to vaccines. In my two decades of helping thousands of people with religious exemptions, I’ve observed that most people’s common sense approach to the task of putting their beliefs in writing results in a beliefs statement that is legally problematic in one manner or another. It’s not about anyone’s intelligence; it’s just that you either know how the law works with religion and vaccines or you don’t. And those who haven’t either researched the legal precedent themselves or sought out educational information from an expert who has don’t.
I used to spend 3 hours or more in private consultations explaining to clients how the law works with vaccines, and going over detailed information about how to write a legally sound statement of religious beliefs. That information is now available in a less expensive Religious Exemption Manual. This manual contains information not available anywhere else, as there isn’t anyone who’s been immersed in exemption law at anywhere near my level (2 decades working in all three dozen legal exemption categories and subcategories, with clients, attorneys, legislators and activists nationally). You never know it all (and it keeps changing, anyway), and I strive to keep learning. But I have a considerable lead on those who’ve entered the legal exemption arena more recently. None of them do the work full time, none have the overview from working in all exemption contexts and sub-contexts.
Alan Phillips, J.D.
Vaccine Rights Legal Expert
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