Are There Religious Exemptions to Vaccines?

Vaccination
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People have been trying to get exemptions from vaccine requirements as long as vaccines have been protecting people from vaccine-preventable diseases. Today, vaccine exemptions fall into three main categories:

  • Medical Exemptions—includes severe allergies to the vaccine or components of the vaccine, immune system disorders
  • Religious Exemptions—based on the tenets of an organized religion that prohibits vaccinating its members
  • Philosophical Exemption—also called a personal-belief exemption

Although vaccines are required to attend most schools in the United States, with the above exemptions, many kids attend without being vaccinated or fully vaccinated.

And of course, parents can always choose to not send their kids to school. Children who are home-schooled usually do not have to meet the same vaccine requirements as children who attend public or private schools.

Recent Outbreaks in Religious Communities

Several recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have ravaged religious communities in North America. Outbreaks in previous years include:

  • At least 158 cases of measles in Quebec in an outbreak that originally started when unvaccinated members of an anti-vaccine eugenics community group took a trip to Disneyland
  • Nearly 400 cases of measles in British Columbia that has been linked to a religious group called the Netherlands Reformed Congregation
  • At least 16 people in Texas with measles who are linked to Eagle Mountain International Church, described as "anti-vaccine" and "vaccine-refusing" and which is a part of Kenneth Copeland Ministries
  • Over 500 people, mostly connected to Orthodox Jewish communities in Borough Park and Williamsburg, Brooklyn developed measles—the largest outbreak in the United States since the endemic spread of measles was eliminated
  • At least 21 people in North Carolina with measles who are linked to Prabhupada Village, a Hare Krishna community
  • At least 2,499 cases in the Dutch "Bible belt" with at least one case of measles encephalitis and one death (a 17-year-old girl)

None of these religions doctrinally prohibit their members from getting vaccinated. The Eagle Mountain International Church even had a few vaccine clinics at their church during their measles outbreak.

Religious Exemptions to Vaccines

Although some people in religious groups cluster and refuse vaccination, they are often actually claiming personal-belief exemptions and not true religious exemptions.

Among the few religions with an absolute objection to vaccines include:

  • Churches that rely on faith healing including small Christian churches such as Church of the First Born, End Time Ministries, Faith Assembly, Faith Tabernacle, First Century Gospel Church, etc.
  • The First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientist) believes in healing through prayer and think that vaccines aren't necessary.

Except in Mississippi and West Virginia, members of these churches and other people who have religious beliefs against immunizations can be exempted from school immunization requirements.

Although there are few religions with an absolute objection to vaccines, there are many more groups within other religions who are opposed to getting their kids and themselves vaccinated, which helps explain some of the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases outlined above.

These other religious groups include:

  • Some Amish
  • Some Dutch Reformed churches
  • Some Muslim fundamentalists

There is no absolute objection to vaccines within these faith traditions, though. Even among the Dutch orthodox Protestants, there is a subset who describe vaccines "as a gift from God to be used with gratitude" and vaccination rates in these communities have been on the rise.

For many religious groups, their anti-vaccine views aren't always about religion anyway. For some Muslim fundamentalists, for example, opposition to the polio vaccine in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan has had much more to do with social and political issues, rather than theological issues. Some have even believed that the polio vaccination effort was a conspiracy to sterilize Muslims in the area. Unfortunately, these are the countries where polio is still endemic.

Religious Exemptions vs. Vaccine Safety Fears

Even though they are clustered in a church or religious group, for many the root cause of their unwillingness to be vaccinated relates to concerns over vaccine safety that drives them to avoid vaccines—and not any real religious doctrine.​

While orthodox Hasidic Jews were at the center of the large measles outbreak in New York, for example, most other orthodox Hasidic Jews in New York are fully vaccinated and some have even participated in trials for the mumps and hepatitis A vaccines. So instead of a true religious exemption, these become more of a personal-belief exemption.

The main problem is that these groups of unvaccinated people become clustered together at church and other activities, helping to fuel large outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

This phenomenon isn't rare. In addition to the measles outbreaks described above, there:

  • Was a rubella outbreak in Europe, in which 387 cases of rubella occurred in an unvaccinated religious community in the Netherlands, of which 29 women got rubella while pregnant at least three women had babies with congenital rubella syndrome and one pregnancy ended in intrauterine death
  • Were multiple outbreaks of polio among Amish communities, with the latest occurring in 2005, infecting four members of an Amish community in Minnesota
  • Have been several cases of Hib disease, including an unvaccinated 7-month-old who died in Minnesota in 2008 and at least three unvaccinated or incompletely children in Pennsylvania who died in 2009

Another problem is that some of these churches do mission work overseas in areas where many of these vaccine-preventable diseases are still very common. An unvaccinated worker may go to one of these countries, catch measles or pertussis, etc., and then return home and infect family members and other people in their church congregation who are either also anti-vaccine, too young to be vaccinated, or who have a medical contraindication to getting vaccinated.

What You Need to Know About Religion and Vaccines

One study of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks among religious groups found that "while the church was the common link among cases, there was no formal advice regarding vaccination from the church before the outbreak. Instead, vaccine refusal was attributed to a combination of personal religious beliefs and safety concerns among a subgroup of church members."

Most religions offer no formal advice regarding vaccination. Rather, many religions have clear positions in support of vaccination including:

  • Catholics—While some people still believe that Catholics are opposed to some vaccines, the Catholic Church is clearly pro-vaccine. Even for the vaccines that some parents question, especially those for hepatitis A, rubella, and varicella, which are cultured in cells that were originally derived from aborted fetuses, the Church teaches that "if no safe, effective alternative vaccines exist, it is lawful to use these vaccines if danger to the health of children exists or to the health of the population as a whole."
  • Jehovah's Witnesses—Although Jehovah's Witnesses had a past opposition to vaccines, which were once banned in the group, in 1952 they stated that vaccination "does not appear to us to be in violation of the everlasting covenant made with Noah, as set down in Genesis 9:4, nor contrary to God's related commandment at Leviticus 17:10-14."
  • Jews—Confusion still exists among some people over the fact that since some vaccines contain components with porcine (pig) and gelatin components, then it must be against Jewish dietary laws for their members to be vaccinated. However, the use of vaccines "are judged based on concepts of medical law contained in halachic codes" and are therefore encouraged.
  • Muslims—Except for areas where polio is still endemic, several imams and other Islamic leaders issued clear statements and fatwas describing how immunization is consistent with Islamic principles.
  • Hindus—None of the four major branches of Hinduism are opposed to vaccines and countries that are majority Hindu, including Nepal and India, have high vaccination rates.

Although many of the large outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases occur among religious groups, few religions actually oppose vaccines. Instead, most actively encourage their members to get vaccinated and prevent the harm from vaccine-preventable diseases.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Connors, Dan. The Truth about Vaccines: A response to our critics. Catholic Digest. May 5, 2010. 
  • Furton, Edward J. Vaccines Originating in Abortion. Ethics & Medics, Volume 24, Number 3.
  • Grabenstein, John D. What the World's religions teach, applied to vaccine and immune globulins. Vaccine. 31 (2013) 2011-2023.
  • Kennedy Allison M. Measles outbreak associated with a church congregation: a study of immunization attitudes of congregation members. Public Health Reports. 2008; 123(2):126–34.
  • Law in Public Health Practice. Vaccination Mandates: The Public Health Imperative and Individual Rights.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. States with Religious and Philosophical Exemptions from School Immunization Requirements. Updated December 2012. 
  • Salmon DA.Health consequences of religious and philosophical exemptions from immunization laws: individual and societal risk of measles. JAMA 1999; 281(2):47–53.