How to Get a Religious Exemption
Below are scanned copies of a form my school uses if a parent or family requests a religious exemption to immunization requirements. Reading it through, a number of thoughts come to mind:
1.) I understand that our Constitution explicitly privileges religious beliefs in a way that it does not privilege “philosophical, political, scientific, or sociological objections” and that this has profound impact on the law. But should religious beliefs be privileged above these other beliefs? I can’t think of a good reason why other than to say that we further open a Pandora’s Box with regards to what rules apply to what people. But that doesn’t seem like a particularly good reason.
2.) The negative externalities of not vaccinating are real and well-documented. People die. There is no getting around that fact. I have very little issue with allowing religious exemptions to laws for behaviors that carry little-to-no negative externalities*. But this isn’t that. Again, people die.
3.) That said, the idea that the sincerity of one’s religious belief is being determined by state officials is also highly problematic. This alone seems a violation of what I understand the 1st Amendment to be. The minute the government or an agent thereof says, “This belief is sincere and legitimate but that one is not,” it seems we’ve gone down a very ugly rabbit hole.
4.) I believe that one of the legal challenges to the contraception mandate involved a religious organization that was eligible for an exemption but which sued on the grounds that acquiring that exemption involved filling out a form such as the one below. And while I can (obviously) understand objecting to the state adjudicating the sincerity of one’s religious beliefs, my understanding was that they found filling out of the form itself to be a violation of their faith. Maybe I’m grossly naive, but I struggle to see how the form below or something similar would do that.
* I would argue that most laws restricting behaviors which have no negative externalities should probably be repealed, but that’s another conversation for another day.
I believe that one of the legal challenges to the contraception mandate involved a religious organization that was eligible for an exemption but which sued on the grounds that acquiring that exemption involved filling out a form such as the one below.
And another that would have sued except that they have a religious objection to being judged by anyone other than Him.Report
I’m pretty sure this is sarcasm but… I actually would be sympathetic to someone saying, “This court has no standing to judge the sincerity of my belief.” What I’m not sympathetic to is someone refusing to sign a form that assuredly would have been rubber-stamped approved because they objected to something bigger that was happening — something that did not involve them but which they still did not like — and for which they manufactured an objection to the signing of the form itself. At least, that is how I understood that particular case (I think it was the one involving the Little Sisters of the Poor or whatever).Report
But should religious beliefs be privileged above these other beliefs?
My concern always stems from personal belief vs. coerced belief.
You may, for religious reasons, feel vaccinations or contraception or premarital sex a sin. But your children are not yet capable of holding those beliefs. Your belief coerces itself onto their bodies.
I have a friend who had polio as a child; it’s pretty uncommon to meet polio victims, now. But because parent’s beliefs are imposed on their children, it will become more common, I fear. And this horror that were were this close to eradicating will, once again, ruin lives, kill, and maim. And through no choice of the the person, but solely due to the beliefs of others.
I take some comfort that the courts have ruled Christian Scientists cannot withhold life-saving treatment from the children on multiple occasions.
I think that we grant weight to the Bill of Rights as if the appearance in the bills equate to their ranking and order; so freedom of religion and speech first, gun rights second, etc. Is there any legal precedence for this, or are they all legally equal?Report
My understanding is the BOR were meant to be viewed equally, so that the 4th has as much value as the 1st.Report
Not only are they all legally equal, the first wasn’t originally the first. It wasn’t listed first in Madison’s proposal to the First Congress (and wasn’t proposed in its current form and structure). It wasn’t even listed first, but third, among the twelve proposed amendments Congress submitted to the states. The first two were not ratified, so the third became, by default, the first. Curiously enough, the proposed second amendment, prohibiting changes in congressional compensation without an intervening election, was eventually ratified in the ’90s, becoming the twenty-seventh (and most recent) amendment.Report
Source for the list proposed by Congress.Report
Am I wrong in remembering that there was language somewhere specifically stating that the ordering should not be read as a ranking?Report
Thank you, @james-hanley
So I go back and spin on the first as we now have it; it specifically states ‘no law.’
That would suggest that a person limiting another’s rights of free speech, religion, or association are legal. Yet if feels like there are broader interpretations, particularly when it comes to religion — we do consider it a 1st amendment violation when someone willfully denies someone else those rights; particularly in employment.
Perhaps I’m just stupid the last few days, but I’d be grateful to anyone who could clarify that for me.Report
@kazzy–Not that I’ve ever heard.
That would suggest that a person limiting another’s rights of free speech, religion, or association are legal.
It’s not unconstitutional, which is not the same as legal. Because the actions are harm one person causes another, government can make the action illegal.
Yet if feels like there are broader interpretations, particularly when it comes to religion — we do consider it a 1st amendment violation when someone willfully denies someone else those rights; particularly in employment.
Not really, because non-governmental actors cannot violate the Constitution. But government can become complicit in an action through enforcement. This was how the Supreme Court gutted restrictive covenants on property–it didn’t say people couldn’t make a restrictive covenant, but that government could not enforce them.
Overall, I don’t think this approach serves your interests well. You’re not interested, i don’t think, in an approach that tends to require a process of even-handed application (if government forces me to disregard religious beliefs when hiring, it may be violating my freedom of religion). You’re interested in a particular substantive outcome. The Constitution certainly may allow for that outcome, but it’s an awfully wild stretch to say that it requires that outcome.Report
Not really, because non-governmental actors cannot violate the Constitution.
I don’t understand what this means. If I’m a non-governmental actor, you’re saying I cannot violate someones constitutional rights, I can only violate laws that violate their constitutional rights? Recursive.
The word unenumerated provokes some questions here.Report
The Bill of Rights does not apply to private actors. It’s that simple. It’s a list of constraints on government. That doesn’t mean you can violate my freedom of speech with impunity, but it means that the action of duct-taping my mouth shut will be defined as assault, not as violating my speech rights.
If you kidnap me on Sunday morning and keep from attending the one true and holy church, forcing me to attend a service worshipping Baal, whip me until I say the words, “Oh, Baal, thou are the one true god,” and make me empty my wallet into the collection plate, you will have violated any number of statutes, but will not have violated my 1st Amendment religious freedom rights.
You, as a private individual cannot violate my constitutional rights, because they are rights I hold only against the government. If the government wants to ensure that you can’t silence my speech or force me to pray to false idols, it has to pass laws giving me statutory rights against certain actions by you.Report
@james-hanley I think I mangled that; weather moving in, words are difficult (no pain yet, that’s good).
I cannot, as a non-governmental actor, violate the constitution. Only laws can violate the constitution? I don’t understand the difference. (And I feel really stupid.) So if I refuse to let my husband meet with certain people, force him to go to my church and won’t let him attend his own, and refuse to let him tell his mother about what I’m doing to him, I have not violated his constitutional rights?
If not, what have I done, besides being a sick monster of a human?Report
We wrote at the same time, and you answered exactly the questions I had, thank you very much, @james-hanleyReport
I don’t think that people are actually (intentionally) putting scientific beliefs below religious ones.
While your school might not have a form to fill out, I’m certain a doctor’s note saying, “this could cause anaphylaxis” might suffice as an objection to vaccination.Report
I’m sure that would qualify as a medical — not scientific — issue. That’s probably a different form.Report
My random, but sort of connected thoughts:
Ideally, I say no. There’s no reason that legitimately held personal beliefs ought to be given less weight than beliefs that stem from membership in some organized religion. However, these norms did not evolve in an ideal world. Our present laws and political norms evolved through a process of discrete marginal improvements (or regressions in some cases and depending on your perspective).
A world that respects religious belief is better than does not. And a world that respected individual non-religious beliefs would be better still. Hopefully we will get there one day.
The externalities point is powerful, but not wholly convincing. Over the years, the government has forced a lot of people to do a lot of things that ended up doing more harm than good and often the rationale was that it was an unambiguous good. I am personally convinced that vaccination is one of those cases where we have gotten it right, but I’m not so convinced that I’m not willing to offer an out to those who want it. There are downsides to letting people decide for themselves whether to get their children vaccinated and there are downsides to taking that choice away from them as well. We ought to look at both sides of the ledger.
The bottom line is that there are no easy answers. Or rather, the only easy answer is to hedge our bets. Make collective decisions, but also offer people the option to opt out. That is the situation in which we give the fullest respect to individual consciousness.Report
I think J R is spot on here. In an ideal world religion maybe shouldn’t be privlidged but in our non-ideal world privledging religious belief to a limited degree is highly preferable to the horror shows that happen when people try banning religious belief.Report
I don’t think j.r. is talking about banning religious belief. And, though I go back and forth over whether having only a religious privilege is preferable to having none at all, removing the religious privilege wouldn’t lead to a horror show (unless you count christian scientists being exposed to the horrors of modern science).Report
Excellent point, @j-r . Do you think the ideal would be laws that we would give no one exemption to because of their bare necessity and little else? E.g., we’d retain laws against murder but eliminate any laws around “controlled substances”. So the Rastas could smoke weed but no one could kill anyone regardless of what their belief system said. Thoughts?Report
The externalities point is powerful, but not wholly convincing. Over the years, the government has forced a lot of people to do a lot of things that ended up doing more harm than good and often the rationale was that it was an unambiguous good.
These two sentences don’t really go together. We look to government to solve externalities because only the govt has the force of law behind it. But lots of organizations — churches, physicians groups, teachers, community groups — try to reduce negative externalities on issues from pollution to vaccination rates.
And I can’t think of many issues where the govt did more harm than good in the context of addressing negative externalities. Inefficient pollution control regs?Report
Just for starters.
In what way was that in the context of addressing negative externalities?Report
“Our study will work better if they don’t know what we’re doing to them or why.” translates to “Obtaining informed consent from these patients would create negative externalities for this project, and by proxy, for the public good.” (since the dept conducting the study was the US public health service)
The fact that they then *failed to treat* said patients when they knew there were better medicines on the market, presumably because it would also fish up their research and its importance to the national good, is another example.Report
Not arguing, just trying to get a grip on this.
“Obtaining informed consent from these patients would create negative externalities for this project, and by proxy, for the public good.”
Is that a direct quote from somewhere, or your interpretation?
I don’t see how losing some subjects through the informed consent requirement actually qualifies as a negative externality for the research project itself. For the public good, arguably so.
But is this really the type of externalities Francis was talking about? I assumed he was talking about government not doing great harm when it was trying to regulate private parties’ negative externalities.Report
You know what? I typed out a really long answer to this questions and then I realized that I am still exhausted and grumpy and I should just stop commenting. Apologies if my original comment was out of line. I’ll try to be more circumspect for the next couple of weeks.Report
No worries. And I wouln’t classify your comment as “out of line.” Here’s hoping the weekend gives you a chance to recuperate from whatever has exhausted you.Report
@james-hanley 3 years of work and school and family problems culminating in the semester from hell? I expect it’ll take more than a weekend.
But I appreciate the good wishes.Report
Can private schools in New York have a blanket vaccination policy that only makes exemptions for medical reasons?
Based on the wording of this form, it sounds like NY requires all students to be vaccinated or provide a formal exemption- but where do the exempters go? I like Russell’s idea of not accepting vaccine objectors, but then I worry that a policy like that might force all them into one place, which would be an epidemiologist’s nightmare. And if that place was a public school full of kids with no other options on where to attend school, that would be even worse.Report
It is my understanding that all schools — public and private — are governed by the health board (or the health board via the board of ed). Students with approved exemptions remain where they are.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, my town has a huge Satmar population and public and private schools that are basically exclusively Satmar. It is my understanding that they do not vaccinate their children, though I am unclear if this is religious or cultural or what. I can only imagine what those schools must be like in terms of the potential for outbreak. I know that another Satmar population in Brooklyn had a severe measles outbreak.Report