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Americans support a high bar for religious exemptions to vaccines

For most, the legitimacy of religious objections to COVID-19 vaccination mandates rests on how consistent the current claim is with a person’s previous actions.

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen during a vaccination clinic at the Norristown Public Health Center in Norristown, Pa., Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Moderna said Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

(RNS) — As we all are nervously watching the omicron variant of COVID-19 spread across the U.S., leaders of organizations and governments at every level are facing complex questions about vaccination requirements.

They know vaccine mandates do in fact increase the number of people who get the vaccine, a crucial step toward protecting the health and well-being of their constituents. But they have also heard the loud voices among some religious groups and leaders who claim getting vaccinated violates their religious beliefs.

This dilemma — protecting people’s health while supporting people’s religious liberty — is a balancing act, and one where the equilibrium point is elusive because the weight on each side seems unknowable. Absent concrete data, religious exemption claims are often treated as “all or nothing” assertions.

Conservatives, who are more likely to make such claims themselves, often see religious exemptions as a trump card protecting not only the religious liberty of faith-based institutions but religious individuals, even when those individuals are assuming professional roles in secular capacities. By this logic, asserting a religious exemption claim clears the ground and acts as a berm against all other appeals, including protecting other people’s health.

Liberals, who are more skeptical of such religious exemption claims, also tend to take an all or nothing approach, either moving to ban them altogether or shying away from engaging the issue out of a fear of being perceived as anti-religious. What both miss is a thoughtful, calibrated way of assessing such claims.

A recent nationally representative public opinion survey, conducted jointly by PRRI and IFYC, organizations led by each of us, provides hard data that helps us grasp both the size of the problem and which religious exemptions Americans believe are justified. These insights can help organizational and governmental leaders know where to place the fulcrum to appropriately balance competing claims.

First, the survey clarifies just how few Americans see a conflict between their religious beliefs and COVID-19 vaccinations. Only 1 in 10 (10%) Americans believe the teachings of their religion prohibit COVID-19 vaccinations.

Second, there is no straight line between these religious beliefs and actions. Even among this small minority of Americans who believe getting a COVID-19 vaccination goes against the teachings of their religion, more than 4 in 10 report they have nonetheless gotten vaccinated (37%) or intend to do so as soon as possible (5%). So, for many, these perceived religious conflicts were ultimately not prohibitive.

Third, even among the approximately one-quarter of American adults who remain unvaccinated, only about 3 in 10 (31%) say they have asked for or plan to ask for a religious exemption to the vaccination.

Putting this all together, only 4% of American adults meet three criteria: 1) they remain unvaccinated; 2) they see a conflict between the teachings of their religion and COVID-19 vaccinations; and 3) they plan to ask for a religious exemption in response to a vaccine requirement.

This finding addresses one side of the equation. But what about the other side? What do Americans think about the legitimacy of religious claims about the incompatibility of their religious beliefs and COVID-19 vaccinations?

The survey has two helpful insights here, too. Six in 10 Americans (60%) — including majorities of every major religious group except white evangelical Protestants — believe there are no valid religious reasons to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine.

But, notably, this skepticism about religious exemption claims does not translate into an all or nothing approach. On the one hand, only 4 in 10 Americans (39%) support a blanket religious exemption policy, in which anyone who claims a COVID-19 vaccination goes against their religious beliefs is granted an exemption. And Americans are divided over whether a religious exemption should be granted if a person has a document from a religious leader certifying that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination goes against their religious beliefs (51% agree, 47% disagree).

Solid majorities, however, favor granting a religious exemption if the person has a verified history of refusing other vaccines on religious grounds (55%), or if the person belongs to a religious group with a record of refusing other vaccines on religious grounds (57%). Notably, belonging to a religious group with a record of refusing other vaccines is the only criteria for granting a religious exemption that finds majority agreement across all major religious groups.

For most Americans, then, the legitimacy of religious objections to COVID-19 vaccination mandates rests on how consistent the current claim is with a person’s previous actions. If, for example, a person identifies with a religious group with a consistent history of asserting religious exemptions to vaccines and other modern medicine, and has opted out of other vaccines for themselves and their children, most Americans see that claim as legitimate. But Americans look more askance at a religious objection from, say, a Southern Baptist, a member of a denomination with no history of vaccination objections, who has previously consented to the typical vaccination regimen for their kids.

Living in a diverse democracy requires us to balance values like public health and religious liberty, which sometimes come into conflict. Public opinion is certainly not determinative of good public policy, but by our lights, this survey contains valuable collective wisdom. Americans continue to favor the wide berth allowed for religious expression and practice, codified in our Constitution and laws, that are bedrock American principles. But, importantly, Americans do not see these principles as absolute but as conditional values that should be balanced with the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Because small but vocal segments of our population perceive a conflict between receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and their religious beliefs, it is not surprising leaders have felt a significant amount of heat around vaccine mandates. But Americans who perceive a religious conflict with COVID-19 vaccinations can take comfort that a majority of their fellow citizens seem open to honoring their claims, as long as they meet a reasonable standard of sincerity and consistency. And concerned leaders can have confidence that setting a high bar for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccinations has the support of most Americans.

This story has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately implied that Jehovah’s Witness beliefs prevent members of the tradition from being vaccinated. 

(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute. Eboo Patel is the president and founder of Interfaith Youth Core. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)