Could Religious Exemptions Trump a COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate? Well, That Depends
Yves here. While this post contains some useful observations about the ability of government to enforce a Covid-19 vaccine requirement, it also skips over some basic issues. One is that the currents state quarantine requirements look to be on shaky ground. States are not allowed to interfere with interstate commerce; that authority lies solely with the Federal government. But no one with sufficient legal firepower has challenged the state quarantines, perhaps because they have proven to be so toothless. So the Feds could impose a “You need to be vaccinated to get on a plane” rule, but not states (and that’s before getting to “Dream if you could enforce it without DHS/TSA participation”).
By Ross D. Silverman, Professor of Public Health and Law, Indiana University. Originally published at The Conversation
Getting a safe and effective vaccine out to the public could be a game changer, health experts believe. But stopping the virus’s spread will only happen if enough people choose – or are required – to get vaccinated.
But while some people may see it as their “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated, others won’t.
Opponents may challenge vaccination requirements based on claims of religious liberty or under specific laws that would allow for a religious exemption from any COVID-19 vaccine mandates. In some states including Indiana and Massachusetts, there are laws allowing parents to cite religious reasons to opt out of childhood immunization requirements.
As a public health lawyer and ethicist who has researched issues related to vaccination policy, I’m often asked about the role a vaccine mandate could play in our COVID-19 response. My answer is a common lawyer’s response: “It depends,” as this question raises numerous questions of its own.
These may explain why 35% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine. While troubling, it’s unclear how many in this camp will keep that opinion if COVID-related illnesses, injuries and disruptions to our lives continue, and a vaccine becomes readily available.
And we do not know enough about COVID-19 immunity yet to know what share of the population would need to be vaccinated for a community to achieve herd immunity and stop the virus’s spread. A mandate may not be necessary, although those refusing vaccination tend to cluster, leaving potential pockets of continued vulnerability.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he would be “pretty surprised” if vaccination became mandatory for any part of the population.
But other experts have raised the possibility of a vaccine being mandatory as part of a “if/then” proposition– in other words, someone can only do something if they are first vaccinated. For example, proof of vaccination could be required to engage in certain jobs, such as prison staff or line workers in meat processing plants. Some businesses, such as nursing homes and hospitals might require vaccination for those who work with certain high-risk populations.
It also could be required to gain access to certain spaces, such as schools or sporting events, or to qualify for certain benefits, like freedom to travel to other states without having to quarantine. These types of rules already exist, for example, in many universities, which require students living in dorms be vaccinated against meningitis.
Another approach would be to mandate the vaccine for certain populations based upon risk characteristics, such as those who live in nursing homes.
Under these scenarios, would religious or personal exemptions override any mandate? That depends on who issues the mandate.
Recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionsuggests that a request to be exempted from an employer’s flu vaccination mandate based on “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observances” would be protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The guidance doesn’t explicitly state that the same rule would apply for COVID-19 – because there is no COVID-19 vaccine at this time – but it seems clear that the commission would prefer that “employers consider simply encouraging employees” to get vaccinated.
Twenty-one states have religious freedom laws prohibiting even minimal interference with residents’ right to practice their faith. In states with these laws, legislatures may need to amend the statute to avoid challenges and allow for universal vaccination mandates for adults.
These exemptions for religious beliefs are political choices. There are no Constitutional or ethical obligations to require an opt out to a vaccine that may be key to stopping a pandemic, should a state wish to prioritize protecting their residents from COVID-19 through mandating vaccination.
Even during this pandemic, most courts, including the Supreme Court, have been hesitant to interfere with the decisions made by state officials taking steps to keep the community safe from a dangerous outbreak. As Chief Justice Roberts recently described, these are emergency circumstances “fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,” and moment-to-moment management of such situations are best left to the elected officials who are directly accountable to the public.