Religious Liberty and Religious Leadership in the Vaccine Wars

February 9, 2022 | Mansee Khurana
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The Supreme Court recently struck down a federal “test-or-vaccine” mandate on businesses with more than 100 employees. Despite this ruling, many Americans must still receive a COVID-19 vaccine before resuming in-person work. Some have taken to exploring religious exemptions to vaccine requirements; as Mansee Khurana explains, this has at times posed a problem for religious leaders:

Religious exemptions from vaccines are currently allowed in 44 states and Washington, DC, and they typically require an employer to provide reasonable accommodation for “sincerely held” religious beliefs. But no objective test determines whether an individual’s request is genuine, which leaves the judgment entirely up to companies. Given the value that a co-sign from a religious leader can provide, I asked Brian Strauss, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a synagogue in Houston, about his approach to talking with people looking to obtain an exemption. . . . Avoiding the vaccines, Strauss contends, contradicts Jewish tradition.

Strauss’s position echoes the attitude that several states have adopted. Personal-belief exemptions in the United States were formalized in the 1960s, after some constituents pressured state legislatures to pass them in response to compulsory-polio-vaccine laws. After a measles outbreak in California in the winter of 2015, the state banned faith-based exemptions. Five more states—including New York, Mississippi, and Connecticut—have disallowed them as well.

Though many clergy are pro-vaccine, they often feel paralyzed or confused talking with congregants about their own stances, according to Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School. . . . While about 90 percent of evangelical faith leaders say they would encourage others to get inoculated, less than half of evangelical congregants are in favor of it.

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