The Legal Standard Encouraging Religious Exemptions to Vaccination is BafflingRoundup
tags: religion, public health, Vaccination, COVID-19
Charles McCrary is a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University and the author of Sincerely Held: American Secularism and Its Believers.
As vaccine mandates begin to take effect, thousands of Americans are scrambling to get religion. For those who oppose vaccination, a “sincerely held religious belief” might be the only way to avoid getting the shot—or losing their job. Online, one can find dozens of official-looking forms, letter templates, and tips on how to explain why your anti-vaccination beliefs are both sincere and religious. Some people are even attempting to turn the exemption business into a lucrative side hustle. Leaders of many major religious organizations and denominations have released statements supporting vaccination and clarifying that their teachings, official and unofficial, do not oppose vaccination. But some are offering “exemption letters” to parishioners who want a minister’s religious authority backing them up.
Soon enough, the courts likely will have to start sorting out this chaotic mess. But whether or not an opponent of vaccination has a letter from a pastor or can cite long-standing religious doctrine to back up their claim won’t necessarily matter. While an endorsement from a religious group or a commitment to religious orthodoxy certainly can help someone get recognized as sincere and religious, as far as the legal system is concerned, those factors are not necessary. Religious beliefs are for individuals to hold—sincerely.
It is a strange standard. To be a sincere believer in the United States—that is, to be recognized by the law as truly religious and thus deserving exemption and accommodation and protection—one does not have to be “traditionally” religious. You don’t have to belong to a church. And if you do, you don’t have to agree with that church’s leaders or its official teachings or the person sitting next to you. You don’t even have to believe in a god.
So, why is “sincerely held religious belief” the standard for exemption? The circuitous legal history of this idea can be traced to the mid-twentieth century. The first key case was U.S. v. Ballard, in 1944. Leaders of a movement called the “I AM” movement were arrested for fraud, since their religious literature solicited donations and made claims that were not true (including, notably, that their founder, who died in 1939, was immortal). The Supreme Court decided that it was a messy business wading into theological matters. It was not the place for a secular court to say whether religious beliefs were true. Instead, it would test only whether the claimants sincerely believed them.
What about beliefs that are not traditionally religious? When is a belief religious, as opposed to philosophical or political or something else? Judges, bureaucrats, and others have had to answer and reanswer those questions on a case-by-case basis for generations. Since the 1960s, most claimants have received a lot of leeway, and the “religious” has become a quite capacious category.
U.S. v. Seeger was a pivotal case. In that 1965 case, the Supreme Court decided that a religious belief, even if it was unorthodox and nontheistic, was genuinely religious if it occupied “a place parallel” to that of a traditional believer. According to this theory, everyone is or at least has the capacity to be religious—and religious beliefs are not about their content so much as how they are believed—deeply, sincerely, religiously.
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