Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

Covid Karma: The Mask Debate Evolves

Fresno Bee, July 25, 2021

Masks are back, along with protests against them. Fresno County public health officials recommend that everyone wear masks again in public. This includes kids in schools, which prompted parents in Clovis to protest the need for kids to wear masks.

The resurgence of COVID is the vexing result of vaccine skepticism. Experts have explained that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. This is frustrating for vaccinated people. We hoped the vaccine would get us back to normal. But that only works if everyone gets vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are still supposed to wear masks. But anti-vaxxers are also likely to be anti-maskers. Unvaccinated and unmasked people are at risk. And it is through them that the virus spreads and mutates.

Political polarization is part of the problem. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats. But not every vaccine-skeptic is Republican. And some Republicans believe in vaccines and masks. Ignorance, fear, and selfishness are non-partisan problems.

Vaccine skepticism is more complicated than political ideology. Some religious people refuse vaccines on dogmatic grounds. Some people are allergic or have other health conditions that rule out vaccination. And vaccinations for children remain problematic.

This subtlety is ignored when people start casting blame upon the unmasked and unvaccinated. Some go so far as to invoke a kind of karmic comeuppance for the unvaccinated. I have heard more than one person say something like, “Well, it’s those unvaccinated folks own fault. They deserve what they get. I hope they hurry up and die so we can get back to normal.”

The people who say this usually say it with a wink and a whisper. They take it back quickly, claiming it is a joke or that they don’t really mean it. But it’s an awful thing to say.

This cringe-worthy blame game is a symptom of a profound social malfunction. The anti-vaxxers don’t trust the public health system. The pro-vaxxers don’t have any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. As the pandemic continues, anger and exasperation are more common than kindness and compassion.

This dysfunction is similar to other rips in our unraveling social fabric.

Productive social life requires thick webs of cooperation. In a well-functioning society, cooperation is contagious. Successful cooperation makes people more cooperative. Cooperators are rewarded. As we share the goods of social life, we become even more cooperative.

But when cooperation breaks down, there is a vicious cycle fueled by distrust and animosity. This has been described by psychologists and philosophers in terms of “the prisoner’s dilemma” and “the tragedy of the commons.” The basic problem is that when we fail to cooperate, we end up with worse outcomes.

This helps explain a number of political and moral problems. Consider climate change. If other people are consuming mass quantities of fossil fuels, why should I cut back? As the climate heats up and the other guy is guzzling gas, I may lose the motivation to regulate my own consumption.

Or consider the controversy about the integrity of the 2020 election. If the other party is stealing elections or undermining confidence in democratic elections, then why should I cooperate? When trust erodes, democracy collapses.

Similar worries hold for COVID restrictions. Those who cooperated for the past year did so with the expectation that if everyone cooperated, things would get better. But the non-cooperators have undermined that hope.

This is a dangerous moment. We risk losing the buy-in of the folks who cooperated in the first place. Their virtuous behavior has not been rewarded. So, the motivation to cooperate fades.

One solution to this problem is moral. If the minor inconvenience of covering my mouth in public can save people’s lives, then I should mask up. Blame and karma ought to play no part in this moral calculation.

But moral concern is not the only thing that motivates us. Our emotions are also involved. That’s why we also need inspiration and hope. More people need to be inspired to get vaccinated. Those who wear masks need to be praised for their virtue. And those who are vaccinated need to be reassured that their cooperation was not in vain