In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) put in place requirements for service members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Litigation has since ensued over the military branches’ restrictive approach to religious exemptions to vaccination.
On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed into one such case: the Court granted the government’s request for a partial stay to allow the Navy to continue to use vaccination status in making deployment and assignment decisions while the litigation proceeds.
For Americans wary of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, like the sweeping requirements President Joe Biden announced Sept. 9, 2021, it seems there are plenty of leaders offering ways to get exemptions – especially religious ones.
No major organized religious group has officially discouraged the vaccine, and many, like the Catholic Church, have explicitly encouraged them. Yet pastors from New York to California have offered letters to help their parishioners – or sometimes anyone who asks – avoid the shots.
These developments point to deep confusion over how to win a religious exemption. So what are they, and is the government even required to offer the exemptions in the first place?
As COVID-19 vaccination mandates become increasinglycommon, we can expect exemption requests (and misuse) to become increasingly widespread, too.
Most entities requiring vaccination mandates or proof of vaccination upon entry may offer limited grounds upon which an individual may request an exemption, usually based upon religious beliefs or medical reasons. Recent history with childhood immunization programs shows less rigorously-structured and -enforced vaccination exemption policies are vulnerable to increased usage, relative to narrower or more stringently-monitored programs. That history also shows there is a possibility some health care licensees may be willing to support individuals seeking to circumvent COVID-19-related requirements through offering questionable medical exemptions.
Entities imposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates, and state health care licensure boards, can take several simple but significant steps to counter misuse of medical exemptions and better protect communities from COVID-19. These safeguards also can decrease the temptation for licensed health professionals to recklessly undermine critical, lawful, evidence-driven public health efforts.
Two major problems with granting religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are that they are very hard to police, and that they are routinely gamed.
Religious freedom is a core value in the United States. This makes policing religious exemptions to vaccination hard – and rightly so. The government policing people’s religion raises a number of thorny issues.
The problem is that the same people who eagerly promote anti-vaccine misinformation are just as eager to misuse religion to avoid vaccinating, and have no hesitation or compunction about coaching others to do the same. And without policing, it is easy for those misled by anti-vaccine misinformation to use the religious exemption.
As Connecticut’s Senate prepares to vote tomorrow on whether to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from school immunization mandates, out-of-state anti-vaccine activists are mobilizing to threaten and intimidate legislators to vote against the bill.
The legislators should hold firm, and pass the bill the Governor says he will sign. They must not let aggressive attackers stop them from acting to make Connecticut’s children safer. Legislators should show the out-of-state anti-vaccine movement that intimidation doesn’t work here.
On February 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a shadow docket decision that could foretell sweeping limitations for public health measures, both within and outside the COVID-19 pandemic context.
The Court’s ruling in the case, Gateway City Church v. Newsom, blocked a county-level ban on church services, despite the fact that the ban applied across the board to all indoor gatherings. This religious exceptionalism is emerging as a key trend in recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those related to COVID-19 restrictions.
To better understand what these rulings might mean for public health, free exercise of religion, the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential vaccine mandates, I spoke with Professor Elizabeth Sepper, an expert in religious liberty, health law, and equality at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
In the last year, colleges and universities across the U.S. struggled with how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent data, from January 2021, shows a mix of online and in-person modes of instruction.
At the same time, a study of the experience in early fall 2020 found an association between colleges and universities with in-person instruction and increased infection incidence in the counties within which the schools were located. With vaccine authorization in the U.S. and the promise of potential availability for student populations in late spring and summer 2021 (in most states’ allocation plans these students are among the last groups in prioritization), there is increasing interest by higher education institutions in moving more of their fall 2021 educational instruction and non-instructional activities to in-person modes. Vaccinating students is a key step to safely reopening campuses, in whole or in part, in a way that is safe for students, faculty, staff, and local communities. At the same time, university leaders are likely reasonably concerned about the legality of mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Not all students, faculty or staff may appreciate such a requirement, and anti-vaccine groups are more than ready to assist in litigation — as, for example, they did when the University of California required influenza vaccines for on-campus attendance (a preliminary injunction in that case was denied). In this essay, we discuss whether universities can legally require vaccination as a condition of attendance and with what accommodations.