Religious exemptions to vaccinations


First Amendment Center Online
August 21, 2008

Most parents make sure that their children are vaccinated according to state law before the students enter public schools. But what about parents whose religious beliefs forbid such state-mandated inoculations?

A new research article on the First Amendment Center Online examines the contentious disputes that can arise when religious beliefs run counter to government mandates concerning vaccinations. Legal intern Shaun McFall frames the legal issue as one of religious accommodation under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“Although religious accommodation has a rich history in the United States, it is a principle that is often controversial and difficult to apply,” McFall writes. “Religious claims for exemptions to state-compelled vaccinations demonstrate the difficult challenge of balancing competing claims.”

The article lays out the constitutional arguments for and against allowing religious exemptions in matters involving public health, discusses public health claims, details the most relevant case law and notes varying criteria used by the states for granting religious exemptions.

“The controversy over religious exemptions to vaccinations is far from over,” McFall concludes. “As concerns are raised by some parents about possible links between some inoculations and developmental disorders like autism, the number of non-medical exemptions requested grows annually, causing many health officials to be concerned that their bleak predictions of outbreaks might soon come true. Advocates on both sides of the issue appear to be becoming more vocal about their beliefs, thrusting the debate into the public eye and causing entrenchment on both sides. Such entrenchment makes the possibility of productive and civil dialogue less likely.”

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