Mark Silk on Secular Vaccination Foes Defending a Needless Religious Exemption

Vaccinations have been a heavily contested issue in the past decade. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


The anti-vaxxers have been out in force at the Connecticut State House this week, demonstrating by the thousands on the street and testifying by the hundreds at a public hearing that began Wednesday morning and didn’t wind up until 8 a.m. Thursday. The object of their ire is House Bill 5044, which would do away with religious exemptions that allow children who attend public or private schools to pass on vaccinations.

In fact, very few religious traditions oppose vaccination. In the very first controversy of this sort in American history, it was the Congregational establishment in Boston that promoted smallpox inoculation in 1721, with the opposition coming from an anti-establishment cabal that included the young Benjamin Franklin.

Christian Scientists traditionally oppose all medical care as showing a lack of faith in God’s healing power, and there is a contingent of Dutch Reformed who oppose vaccination as disrespecting God’s providence. Though Jewish and Muslim authorities support vaccination, adherents of both faiths sometimes oppose it out of a belief that pig tissue is used in the manufacturing process.

Similarly, Roman Catholicism expresses moral reservations about vaccines that have been developed with tissue obtained from a voluntarily aborted fetus and allows for conscientious objection to vaccination in such cases. Those vaccines are nevertheless permissible in the eyes of the church, and in fact, last month the Connecticut Catholic Conference (representing all bishops in the state) issued a statement supporting vaccinations that noted that the state’s Catholic schools require them.

Of course, Americans do not need to cite some authoritative religious teaching in order to have their religious rights recognized by the government. So long as a belief is judged to be sincerely held, the state cannot question its legitimacy.

One mother protesting the Connecticut bill did not cast her religious objection on the basis of any faith-based medical position. “We’re a religious family,” she told the local NBC affiliate. “We have experienced vaccine injury, that’s a very real thing, and that’s what prompted us to do a lot of research. And when we did that research, we were appalled at what we were putting into our kids. I swore a very intimate oath to God to protect my kids, and I will never do that to them again.”

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Source: Religion News Service

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