Battling over religion and vaccines

As vaccine pressure builds, religious exemption comes under fire

WITH THE RISE of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the vaccination strategy in Massachusetts is shifting from cajoling, pleading, and incentivizing (gift cards, free coffees, and lottery prizes) to more explicit forms of pressure.

Politicians of all stripes, even laissez-faire Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, are embracing vaccine mandates for public employees and encouraging private employers to follow suit. There is some resistance, but most of the public sector unions raising concerns about mandates appear to be seeking some concessions at the bargaining table.

Under Baker’s mandate, he ordered all state employees be fully vaccinated by October 17 or face dismissal or disciplinary action. He said exceptions would be made for those with medical disabilities or those with sincere religious beliefs that would prevent them from getting vaccinated. 

Now opponents of the religious exemption are trying to capitalize on the current vaccine moment. They are mobilizing behind legislation that would do away with the religious vaccine exemption available to parents entering their children in kindergarten.

Under current state law, children must be vaccinated for a variety of diseases before entering kindergarten unless a doctor certifies that a vaccination would be dangerous to their health or their parent or guardian “states in writing that vaccination or immunization conflicts with his sincere religious beliefs.” 

Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill is pushing legislation that would do away with the religious exemption and a group of four doctors representing the Massachusetts chapter of the American College of Physicians came out in support of the legislation on Sunday. They said they have personally treated patients for serious diseases that could have easily been avoided with a vaccine. They described the religious exemption as a “dangerous loophole that parents are using to keep their kids unvaccinated.”

According to state records, medical exemptions are rare, on average less than 0.2 percent of the children entering kindergarten in Massachusetts during the 2020-2021 school year. Religious exemptions are more common, averaging 0.9 percent across the state but as high as 7.8 percent in Dukes County, 2.7 percent in Franklin County, 2.4 percent in Barnstable County, and 1.4 percent in both Hampden and Hampshire Counties.

The issue is a sensitive one, in part because “sincere religious beliefs” are not defined in the law and politicians in general are reluctant to encroach on religious freedom. For many, the issue comes down to a clash between science and religion. 

At a hearing on Vargas’s bill in July, many opponents said doing away with the religious exemption would unfairly limit their freedom. Yet supporters of the bill said COVID-19 has illustrated how individual health choices can affect a broader community of people, particularly those with health issues that prevent them from getting vaccinated. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Most analyses of the issue indicate most religions have no prohibition against vaccinations, suggesting those who are claiming the religious exemption are doing so for personal reasons. 

A person who identified himself as Dr. Ed said as much in a comment he attached to the op-ed by the four doctors opposed to the religious exemption. “My religious beliefs are whatever the hell I say they are, and that means that your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) can be whatever the hell you say yours are,” he wrote.