(RNS) — In what could be a sign of COVID-19’s influence, some sectors of U.S. society — specifically white evangelicals and Republicans — are showing a growing aversion to the requirement that schoolchildren be vaccinated for illnesses like mumps and measles.
Overall, about 70% of Americans say healthy children should be mandated to be vaccinated so they can attend public schools, according to a new Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday (May 16). That is a distinctly smaller percentage from findings in 2019 and 2016, when 82% were in favor of such requirements. The share of the U.S. public who say parents should get to determine not to vaccinate their children is 28%, an increase of 12 points from 2019.
“We are seeing a kind of marked drop in support for school-based childhood vaccine requirements,” said Cary Funk, Pew’s director of science and society research, in an interview. “That drop is particularly coming among Republicans as well as among white evangelical Protestants, many of whom are Republicans.”
The new survey shows that 58% of white evangelicals say there should be a requirement for children attending public schools to be vaccinated, while 40% say parents should be able to choose not to have their children vaccinated, even if that could cause health risks for others. Comparatively, in 2019, white evangelicals favored mandated vaccines for public schoolchildren by a margin of 77% to 20%.
Even though white evangelicals have a growing opposition to such requirements, they remain supportive of measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, Funk said. The report notes that 82% of white evangelicals who are parents of minors say their child has received such vaccines, close to the percentage of the share of all parents who say this (79%).
Funk noted that being “inclined away from school-based vaccine requirements is different than saying that the vaccines themselves are not safe or effective.”
Americans overall express more skepticism about COVID-19 than MMR vaccines. While 88% said benefits of those childhood vaccines outweigh the risks, 62% said the same about COVID-19 inoculations.
Significant majorities across religious groups say the benefits of MMR vaccines outweigh the risks from getting them.
Eighty-seven percent of Protestants overall say this, and more than 8 in 10 of different kinds of Protestants agreed: 93% of white nonevangelicals, 87% of white evangelicals and 82% of Black Protestants. Overall 89% of Catholics held this view, with 94% of white Catholics agreeing, as well as 83% of Hispanic Catholics.
A higher percentage of the religiously unaffiliated — 91% — saw benefits of MMR vaccines outweighing risks, with 96% of atheists, 95% of agnostics and 88% of those who described themselves as “nothing in particular” holding this view.
Compared to white evangelicals, lower percentages of all other surveyed religious groups were in favor of parents being able to decide not to vaccinate their children, even if such action would create health risks for others.
About 2 in 10 white nonevangelicals, Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics held this view, compared to a quarter of white Catholics, 10% of atheists and 18% of agnostics. But 30% of people who described themselves as nothing in particular agreed that parents should be able to make decisions about childhood vaccinations.
White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group surveyed that had fewer than half — 40% — agreeing that the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the risks. Other groups seeing benefits of the recent vaccines outweighing the risks ranged from 60% of white nonevangelicals and those who are “nothing in particular” to 84% of atheists.
White evangelical Protestants, who were noted earlier in the pandemic for their vaccine hesitancy, stood out as the group that most reported not being vaccinated, at 36%. The subgroups with the highest percentages saying they are fully vaccinated and recently boosted were atheists (52%), agnostics (44%) and Black Protestants (43%).
Overall, 34% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and recently boosted, and 21% had not been vaccinated.
The survey of 10,701 U.S. adults was conducted online from March 13-19 and had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 1.4 percentage points. The margin of error for the 1,669 white evangelical Protestants surveyed was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.