WASHINGTON (RNS) — A new poll reveals most Americans are in favor of offering religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccines, yet express concern that too many people are seeking such exemptions. In the same survey, more than half of those who refuse to get vaccinated say getting the shot goes against their personal faith.
The poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core and released Thursday (Dec. 9), investigated ongoing debates about COVID-19 vaccines as well as emerging divisions over whether religious exemptions to the shots should even exist.
According to the survey, a small majority (51%) of Americans favor allowing individuals who would otherwise be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to opt out if it violates their religious beliefs, compared with 47% who oppose such religious exemptions.
The divide, which researchers noted has remained roughly the same since they began surveying on the question earlier this year, yawns wider when respondents are broken out by party: Only 33% of Democrats support religious exemptions to vaccines, whereas most independents (53%) and a broad majority of Republicans (73%) are in favor of them.
Even so, majorities of almost every religious group believe there are no valid religious reasons to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, including Hispanic Catholics (68%), other Christians (68%), Jewish Americans (67%), Hispanic Protestants (64%), white Catholics (62%), members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (60%), Black Protestants (59%), white mainline Protestants (56%) and other Protestants of color (51%).
Religiously unaffiliated Americans were the most likely to say there are no valid religious reasons to refuse the vaccine, at 69%, whereas white evangelical Protestants were the only faith group among whom fewer than half (41%) said the same.
Two groups — white evangelical Protestants and “other Protestants of color,” a category that includes Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, among others — were the only major faith groups among whom less than a majority (38% each) agreed that “too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid COVID-19 vaccination requirements.” Jewish Americans, on the other hand, were the most likely to agree with the statement (72%), followed by Latter-day Saints (68%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (67%). Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants, white mainline Protestants and Hispanic Protestants all hovered between 63% and 58%.
A majority of Democrats (77%) and Americans overall (59%) also said they believe too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid COVID-19 vaccines, but Republicans (41%) and Republicans who trust far-right news sources (18%) were notably less likely to agree.
The survey was conducted between Oct. 18 and Nov. 9, 2021, before the discovery of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. While a smattering of preliminary research suggests the new strain may produce more mild cases, reports that it may also be more transmissible and at least partially evade protection from two-dose vaccines have spurred a surge in Americans seeking booster doses.
Faith groups and religious leaders have been generally supportive of vaccines overall, and many have assisted with the vaccine rollout by partnering with government leaders to host vaccination drives at their houses of worship. Faith leaders have also actively promoted inoculations across the globe, with rabbis participating in vaccine trials and Pope Francis describing getting the shot as “an act of love.”
Religious outreach appears to be working, according to data from PRRI and IFYC. Among Latter-day Saints, 46% said faith-based approaches impacted their decisions to get vaccinated, as did 27% of Black Protestants and 26% of Hispanic Catholics. The numbers were generally even higher among devotees who attend religious services regularly.
Vaccine acceptance has also greatly increased across religious groups since March. For example, Hispanic Protestants leapt from 43% in the spring to 77% by November. White evangelicals also increased, from 45% to 65%, although they are now the religious group with the least amount of vaccine acceptance.
Many religious authorities, meanwhile, have rejected appeals for religious exemptions. Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, one of former President Donald Trump’s faith advisers during his presidency, came out against religious exemptions earlier this year, telling The Associated Press “there is no credible religious argument against the vaccines.”
Several major U.S. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses have taken similar stances.
Yet, the PRRI and IFYC data underscores the faith-fueled vaccine debates that continue among some religious communities. There remains a vocal subset of Americans who express vaccine hesitancy or even outright anti-vaccine sentiment, with many couching their beliefs in a mixture of conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism. The percentage of vaccine refusers has remained roughly stable for many religious groups. This includes white evangelicals, whose vaccine refusal rate has consistently hovered around 25% — the highest of any religious group.
Some conservative activists have actively encouraged people to opt out of various vaccine mandates by asking for a religious exemption. Among their reasons: opposition to pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines using cells believed to have been originally derived from tissue from fetuses aborted decades ago — a common practice used in the creation of many modern medicines.
The debate escalated last month when faith leaders organized by a band of onetime Trump faith advisers sent a letter to U.S. military leaders urging them to allow service members to opt out of mandated COVID-19 vaccination because of their faith.
“We should be rewarding their bravery and the bravery of all our men and women in uniform, by not forcing them to choose between sincere religious convictions and staying in the military,” the letter read in part.
According to the PRRI and IFYC poll, vaccine refusers are deeply supportive of religious exemptions, with 85% backing them compared with 44% of vaccine-acceptant Americans.
Vaccine refusers were also the most likely to say they agree with the statement that “receiving the COVID-19 vaccination goes against my religious beliefs,” with 52% saying yes.
But the number shifted when the question was changed slightly to emphasize the teachings of their faith: Only 33% said they agreed that “the teachings of my religion prohibit receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.”
The survey was conducted online, reached more than 5,700 total respondents and reports a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.