Two weeks ago, as the St. Louis County Council was about to pass an ordinance requiring all employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, one resident stood up and told wary city employees how to avoid the mandate: “If you don’t have religion, get it now,” she advised, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The quest for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines remains a hot topic — especially in conservative religious and political circles, where people are most likely to shun vaccination.
However, national reports indicate only a small percentage of the population is seeking such exemptions. And when they do, the primary motivation is seldom religion. No major religious bodies in the U.S. advocate avoiding vaccines.
The nation’s top expert on vaccines — who also is vilified by COVID-19 deniers and vaccine refusers — told MarketWatch Oct. 3 that most requests for religious exemptions actually are philosophical objections.
National reports indicate only a small percentage of the population is seeking such exemptions. And when they do, the primary motivation is seldom religion.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a public health review found “very, very few, literally less than a handful” of established religions that oppose vaccinations.
He acknowledged that requests for religious exemptions create a hardship for many businesses, which are not equipped for the volume of vetting required to determine who has a legitimate request and who does not.
The website Military.com, which serves members of all the U.S. armed forces, advises that obtaining a religious exemption from the military will prove exceptionally difficult, unless a person previously refused on religious grounds to take a series of other vaccines required at time of enlistment. Those include vaccines against smallpox, influenza and hepatitis.
In the U.S. Army, for example, any soldier claiming a religious exemption to the COVID vaccines must be interviewed by an Army chaplain, who will “assess the basis and sincerity of belief” behind the objections and write a memo up the chain of command. Then if approved to move forward, the soldier must meet with a medical official, who will “counsel the soldier to ensure they are making an informed decision on risk.”
Police are chief objectors in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times reported that faced with a mandate for all city personnel to be vaccinated against COVID, slightly more than 10% of employees are seeking religious exemptions to keep their jobs without taking the jab. However, those seeking exemptions are disproportionately police officers, the paper noted: “About a quarter of LAPD employees have indicated they are planning on filing for a religious exemption.”
The Times, one of the nation’s leading daily newspapers, published an editorial Sept. 20 saying there should be no religious exemption for vaccines.
“Employers should eliminate religious exemptions when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination.”
“Religious exemptions don’t protect the public, and when it comes to COVID-19, public health must remain the overriding priority. Courts have generally ruled that employers must make reasonable allowances for religious beliefs, but even in the cases when those claims are the result of legitimate, deeply held spiritual or moral beliefs, it is not reasonable to allow COVID-19 to continue threatening public health,” the editorial board wrote. “In other words, employers should eliminate religious exemptions when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination. The mandates should apply to everyone except the very few who have legitimate and serious medical issues that make the vaccine dangerous for them.”
Other civic leaders and editorial pages have similarly called for an end to religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Riding the wave of anti-vax sentiment
This comes at a time when the anti-vax movement in general had been gaining some momentum nationwide. Well before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, requests for religious exemptions for state-mandated childhood vaccines had been on the rise.
A 2019 analysis published in the journal Pediatrics found about 1.7% of kindergarteners nationwide received religious exemptions to vaccination during the 2017-18 academic year. That was up significantly from four years earlier, when 1.1% of kindergarteners received religious exemptions.
However, kindergarteners are less likely to get vaccine exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons when schools require their parents to get medical counseling and a signed form from a health care provider before they can be considered for exemptions, according to research compiled by the Kennedy School at Harvard.
Well before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, requests for religious exemptions for state-mandated childhood vaccines had been on the rise.
Research on resistance to basic vaccination mandates has shown an interesting cause-and-effect when states try to eliminate religious exemptions, however. When schools stop letting students skip vaccines for philosophical reasons, more children seek religious exemptions. And when schools ban religious or philosophical exemptions, medical exemptions increase.
More Americans vaccinated
Meanwhile, Gallup reported that in September the percentage of U.S. adults who say they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 jumped to 75%, after three months of being stuck at just under 70%. Another 5% of adults said they plan to be vaccinated, bringing the combined percentage of Americans who say they are either vaccinated or planning to be vaccinated to 80%.
The self-reporting in Gallup’s study corresponds to data of known vaccinations reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. As of Oct. 7, the CDC said 76% of Americans age 12 and older — the group currently eligible to be vaccinated — had received at least one dose and 66% were fully vaccinated.
Gallup attributed the uptick in vaccinations to fears about the Delta variant of COVID.
Pollsters found that 40% of adults now say they are very or somewhat worried about being infected, similar to the 39% in August but up from 29% in July and 17% in June.
The Gallup data also found that the percentage of workers who say their employer will require workers to be vaccinated has jumped from 19% in August to 29% in September.
Who’s still not getting vaccinated?
While the latest Gallup report did not categorize vaccination rates by religious identification, it did explore political identification, which in previous polling has paralleled religious views. Republicans and conservative evangelical Christians have tracked similar paths.
The Sept. 13-19 polling found that for the first time, a majority of Republicans (56%) said they have received at least one dose of vaccine. This is a 6-percentage-point gain from August, the largest monthly growth in vaccination among Republicans since April.
However, Republicans retain the lowest vaccination rate of any major subgroup of Americans, Gallup noted. The 56% of vaccinated Republicans compares to 70% of men and women, white and non-white adults, and adults in all four major regions of the country who say they have been vaccinated.
Also notable: The previous gap in vaccination rates based on age has narrowed, with 79% of Americans ages 18 to 34 vaccinated, compared to 68% of those ages 35 to 54 and 77% of those age 55 and older.
One bit of bad news: The number of unvaccinated Americans yet willing to be vaccinated may be incredibly small. Against the 75% who currently report having received at least one shot, another 20% of Americans told Gallup they do not intend to get vaccinated under any circumstances. And while that number is large, the percentage is down 3 points since August.
Fully one-fourth of those who say they won’t get vaccinated report their primary reason for rejecting the shot is that they have been infected with COVID-19 and believe they have sufficient antibodies to protect them.
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