Let’s be clear here — most non-medical vaccination exemptions are religious in nature; philosophical exemptions are just a misnomer designed to get around the court’s right to regulate religious behavior that threatens the health and well-being of others.

The Supreme Court decided the criteria for determining if a statute that regulates religious behavior is constitutional or not in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The court ruled that a statute is constitutional if it has a primarily secular purpose, if its principal effect neither aids nor inhibits religion, and if government and religion are not excessively entangled. Granting religious vaccination exemptions meet none of the Lemon Law criteria and therefore are unconstitutional.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia built on the Lemon Law criteria and ruled in (Oregon) Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that while the government cannot regulate religious beliefs, it can regulate religious behavior. He argued by supposing a religion that required a practice that was detrimental to the health of another, say human sacrifice for instance. Does anyone advocate that the government should not step in to prohibit that behavior?

The Supreme Court established almost 30 years ago that if a religious belief results in behavior that endangers the health of others, the government has the obligation to protect others from the harm that is likely to follow. Religious exemptions for vaccinations are a religious behavior that results in endangering others.

Some argue prohibiting religious exemptions violates the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. But freedom of religion necessarily means the freedom from religion as well — no one can have religious freedom if they must live with the consequences of someone else’s religious behavior. Exemptions for religious reasons violate everyone’s right to their freedom of and freedom from religion.

Religious vaccination exemptions also violate the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause. When the government allows vaccination exemptions for religious reasons, the government is favoring one religion’s beliefs over all others.

Let’s take the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine as an example. It is no coincidence that the areas responsible for the recent outbreaks of measles in this country, Rockland County, New York, and Vancouver, Washington, were also the same areas where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccination rates were too low to provide herd immunity. Religious vaccine exemptions in these communities caused the severest outbreak of measles in this country since 2000, the year measles was thought to be eradicated.

According to the CDC, the ideal level of immunization against measles to provide herd immunity is 95 percent. Health professionals in Rockland County reported vaccination levels as low as 60 percent and are alarmed that these low-level immunized areas are on the rise, and are a threat to casual visitors.

Measles is very contagious. The virus can live, suspended in the air, for two hours after an infected person, often without symptoms, leaves the area. When an unvaccinated person enters that area, they have a 90 percent chance of infection.

Some have argued that allowing a child to contract a preventable illness such as measles by not getting their child vaccinated for religious reasons is akin to child abuse. According to the American Journal of Public Health, New York’s law states that: a neglected child is one whose “condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired” because the parent has failed “to exercise a minimum degree of care in supplying the child with adequate” health care.

The Maine Senate on Thursday voted to end philosophical exemptions to vaccinations, but not religious exemptions. The bill, L.D. 798, faces further votes in the House and Senate. We should push legislators to reconsider eliminating the religious exemption.

When parents obtain a religious exemption to vaccination, they put their own child and others at risk. Let’s not let this happen in Maine.

 

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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