With in-person school starting, I have been inundated with well-child checks at the clinic. Previously, this was a laid-back, fun affair, catching up with kids on their summer adventures, ensuring their physical well-being to participate in sports, and identifying any changes in vision or hearing that might impair their ability to learn. This year, however, has been fraught with much greater tension. Not only are there questions and concerns about COVID-19 and safety protocols, but as the arrival of childhood COVID vaccines approach, I am being flooded with vaccine exemption requests.
Washington state passed House Bill 1638 in 2019, removing the personal belief exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for children attending schools and day care centers. Now is the time to remove the religious exemption for non-porcine childhood vaccines as well.
Last year illuminated how damaging public health crises can be to the education and development of our children. School closure from COVID-19 was linked to increased anxiety, loneliness and sadness in children, as well as unhealthy weight gain associated with decreased physical activity. Perhaps most fundamentally, school closures led to less learning, which hit low-income communities particularly hard. Due to school closures, students living in the poorest 20% of U.S. neighborhoods are projected to see a 25% drop in their post-educational earning potential. And this doesn’t even touch on the health and economic impacts home schooling had on parents. Clearly, we need to do whatever we can to keep schools safely open. When safe, effective COVID vaccines are available for children, they need to be given.
This is an issue of public health. While religious freedom is an important and sacred component of American life, religious beliefs do not permit people from endangering others. This is not an issue of religious freedom. There is no legal basis to religious exemptions from vaccines, and medical professionals should not be spending their time determining the sincerity of a particular religious belief. The First Amendment’s right to exercise freedom of religion has been reviewed by the Supreme Court repeatedly (Employment Division vs. Smith and Fulton vs City of Philadelphia), and time and again, as law professor Erwin Chemerinsky explains, the prevailing opinion plainly states that “as long as a law is neutral, not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion and of general applicability to all individuals, it cannot be challenged based on free exercise of religion.”
Requiring students to be vaccinated is applying law to everyone and it is not motivated by religion, but rather by public health; it typifies a neutral law of general applicability. This is why several other states have already passed legislation excluding religious exemption for vaccines. And this isn’t even a Republican versus Democrat or religious versus secular distribution; West Virginia and Mississippi accompany California, Maine, Connecticut and New York in excluding religious exemptions.
With unequivocal data showing that vaccination reduces the rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, and with the Delta variant causing more hospitalizations among children than at any other point in the past year — a record that was repeatedly broken this past month — it is imperative that we protect our children.
As a family medicine doctor, working both in clinic administering vaccines and in the hospital, where I see the sickening effects of COVID-19, particularly among those who are not vaccinated, it’s my job to keep kids healthy. In our current state of vaccine hesitancy, protecting kids means advocating for vaccine requirements. Eliminating the religious exemption for non-porcine vaccines is the best next step for Washington.