Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain: Use and Abuse of Religious Exemptions from School Immunization Requirements.

71 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2014 Last revised: 15 Mar 2014

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

University of California Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: February 16, 2014

Abstract

School immunization requirements are one way that states protect school age children against vaccine preventable diseases. At present forty eight states allow parents to exempt their students from immunization requirements based on religious reasons, philosophical reasons, or either. This paper focuses on the religious exemption and makes three points:

A. People lie to get a religious exemption.

B. Our jurisprudence makes preventing such abuse very hard. And with good reasons.

C. Because the religious exemption is so prone to abuse, we should remove it.

The article examines the jurisprudence surrounding religious exemptions and how it makes them prone to abuse. It then uses three sources to argue that religious exemptions are widely abused: First, survey data describing the reasons people do not vaccinate. Generally, the reasons people give are safety concerns, not religious reasons. Second, the positions of established religions and what they say about vaccines. While our jurisprudence does not allow courts to refuse an exemption to someone just because the religious they officially belong to does not prohibit vaccines, if many of those using a religious exemption belong to religions that do not oppose or even warmly embrace and support vaccines, the religious grounds for the exemption are at least a little suspect. Finally, the article provides examples from people saying on Facebook that they lied to obtain a religious exemption. The article ends by discussing three potential solutions to the problem of widespread abuse of the religious exemption: tightening the scrutiny of requests for religious exemptions, limiting exemptions to medical exemptions only, and providing only a personal choice exemption. While skeptical about whether tightening scrutiny is appropriate or constitutional, the article describes the benefits and costs of the latter two options, leaning slightly towards a relatively hard to get personal choice exemption.

Keywords: vaccines, religious exemptions, health

JEL Classification: I10, I18

Suggested Citation

Reiss, Dorit Rubinstein, Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain: Use and Abuse of Religious Exemptions from School Immunization Requirements. (February 16, 2014). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 65, No. 6, 2014; UC Hastings Research Paper No. 95. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2396903

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss (Contact Author)

University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States
415-5654844 (Phone)
415-5654865 (Fax)

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