On Aug. 23, the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older.
This was supposed to be a time of celebration, when everyone’s fears and doubts were finally relieved and the lines to vaccination sites extended around the block. After all, more than 200 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been administered in the U.S. (not to mention 146 million Moderna doses and 14.5 million J&J doses).
Safety and efficacy are proven. Yet only 53% of the population is fully vaccinated and the delta variant is filling our hospitals and ICUs.
Incentive payments for vaccination are increasingly common as school districts and colleges encourage vaccination to avoid shutting down in-person learning. Prominent celebrities and politicians have encouraged vaccination, but others have been vocal opponents.
What is apparent is that being nice is not enough to get people vaccinated.
The FDA’s action lit the fire of vaccine mandates, which were rare when COVID-19 vaccines were under Emergency Use Authorization (most still are).
Large hospital systems like Methodist hospital, which mandated vaccines at the end of March, and many major employers from McDonald’s and Walmart to Goldman Sachs have stepped up vaccine requirements.
Delta Air Lines will require that employees be vaccinated or pay a $200 a month health insurance surcharge. Beginning this month, the U.S. military is requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to maintain preparedness of our troops, much as they already do for any number of other infectious diseases.
In an article in The Atlantic titled ‘‘Vaccine Refuser Don’t Get to Dictate Terms Anymore,’’ author Juliette Kayyem says what a lot of vaccinated people are thinking: People who opt out of shots shouldn’t expect their employers, health insurers and fellow citizens to accommodate them.
The most vocal demands for accommodation are coming from what historically would have been the least expected place: religious conservatives. Some churches have offered blanket religious exemption letters for those who don’t want to take the COVID-19 vaccination, despite some religious leaders’ prohibitions.
One particularly egregious — and frankly, immoral — means to the anti-COVID-19 vaccine end is the use of religious exemptions as a “pro-freedom” political position. This is not the old-style, radical fringe anti-vax movement, which opposes all vaccinations. However, the zeal of these mostly white evangelical Christians is no less extreme.
Unfortunately, this segment of the Christian right is a sizable enough minority of the U.S. population that achieving the high rate of vaccination needed to quell this pandemic has become a Herculean, if not impossible, task.
True religious exemption requests are based on sincere religious beliefs. It defies credulity that in this era of declining church attendance and doubt that God even exists, sincere religious exemptions are suddenly in vogue.
Religious leaders across the spectrum — Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Canterbury, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pastors, rabbis, imams, Hindu leaders, Buddhists, Sikhs, even Jehovah’s Witnesses — support vaccination.
Apart from all major religions looking askance at religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination, one leading bioethicist commented that most of the purportedly religious opposition to COVID-19 vaccination is not sincere; rather, it is “just a way to get out of having to take a vaccine.”
Up to 2019 — prior to the pandemic — medical exemptions for vaccinations were rare. For example, the U.S. median non-medical exemption rate among kindergartners was 2%. If the COVID-19 religious exemption rate was anticipated to be a mere 2%, we would not be talking about it.
No matter the rate, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, argues that policies requiring vaccination against COVID-19 need not include, and should not include, exemptions for those who have religious objections to vaccinations.
“No one, in practicing his or her religion, has a constitutional right to endanger others,” he writes. United Airlines apparently has taken that to heart, amending their mandatory vaccination policy to say that those granted religious exemptions will be placed on temporary unpaid leave and only allowed to return to work “once the pandemic meaningfully recedes.”
It should be clear: If you have never refused a vaccination on religious grounds — if you are vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, shingles, hepatitis or any other infectious disease — then suddenly in 2021 you decide you don’t want to take the COVID-19 vaccination, that is not your religious belief. It is your political opinion.
There is a huge difference, and the latter does not qualify you for exemption. And lest anyone think vaccine mandates are unconstitutional, think again. The U.S. Supreme Court decided for vaccine mandates way back in 1905.
There is a misplaced rage among too many Christians — yes, rage — disingenuously cloaked in a dubious religious liberty narrative against safe, proven, life-saving vaccines.
As political commentator, attorney and Christian David French writes, “The very moral framework of millions of our fellow citizens — the way in which they understand the balance between liberty and responsibility — is gravely skewed.”
The title of that recent column by French says it well: It’s time to stop rationalizing and enabling evangelical vaccine rejection.
Amen to that.
“But my freedom!” some are screaming, as they want to claim vaccine mandates are the (evil) government’s way of suppressing the church. French thoughtfully argues there is no religious liberty interest in refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.
As if we need reminding, liberties have limits. We are at a point where our “self”-centered society falsely believes that individual rights trump our responsibilities as citizens of our great democratic constitutional republic.
All citizens — especially true Christians — should be doing everything in their power to care for the health and safety of others in this pandemic. That includes getting vaccinated. It is our civic and moral duty, if we would acknowledge it.
Attempting to claim a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccines is, frankly, an egregious example of biblical bad fruit. Let us all produce good fruit.