The COVID-19 crisis is intensifying across the nation, with hospital beds filling up to new highs in places like Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama. With experts anticipating 100,000 more deaths by December if America doesn’t change its approach, many Americans are starting to lose patience with vaccine skeptics. In March, 56 percent of U.S. adults were in favor of offering religious exemptions to the vaccine. Now, that number has dropped to 52 percent, according to the Public Religion Institute.
President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for private employers with more than 100 employees has stirred strong feelings in some corners of the country but, overall, most Americans don’t see it as a violation of religious freedom. In a recent survey that pitched the story of a hypothetical kid who wasn’t allowed to enroll at a public school because she wasn’t vaccinated, only 26 percent took the kid’s side.
Still, the majority opinion may not matter much, as America’s courts have tended to apply First Amendment protections to cases of religious freedom very liberally.
It’s a complicated situation. In the U.S., very few religious groups formally oppose vaccinations. Vaccines have been relatively uncontroversial among most faith communities for decades, and even in recent months, prominent religious leaders from Pope Francis to Dr. Russell Moore have urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. One former pastor wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, saying he did not believe in religious exemptions for the vaccine and arguing that using God as an excuse to refuse vaccination is a form of taking His name in vain.
However, established religious leaders are often no longer seen as the trusted sources of religious information they once were. Social media has opened up new channels for the faithful to find new leaders, and many such religious influencers hold significant sway. Such leaders may be skeptical about the vaccine for a number of reasons, from the use of fetal stem cells in some vaccine research to a belief that taking the vaccine betrays a lack of faith in God’s protection. In some very rare cases, the vaccine may be tied to government microchips or even the Mark of the Beast but for the most part, vaccine skeptics are taking more of a “wait and see” approach to getting vaccinated.
Religious objections provide a broad umbrella for all such hesitations, since courts don’t require people to prove their religious objections are sincerely held. People can sincerely believe an interpretation of biblical teaching that forbids them from getting vaccinated, but they don’t have to. In the U.S., you can say vaccination is a violation of your Jedi oaths if you want. As Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs for the University of Illinois System, told Deseret News: “Heretics have as much a claim to religious freedom as the orthodox.”
Private employers have a little more power than the federal government does in these cases, but not many will be looking for a fight that publicly contentious.