Kate Cohen

Controversy accompanied the start of the school year in New York. The state, responding to a serious measles outbreak, removed religious exemptions from its law requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated. More than 26,000 unvaccinated children attended school last year due to their parents’ “sincere and genuine religious beliefs.” Now, unless those kids get vaccinated, they can’t go to school.

Some of their parents have held protests, with signs reading “Let the parents call the shots,” “Hands off my kids” and “Your vote kicked me out of preschool and my mommy can’t go to work.”

None of these signs sport Bible verses or Talmudic sayings forbidding vaccination. In fact, protesters decrying the repeal of the religious exemption rarely mention religion, probably because there is little official religious opposition to immunization. “Religious belief” was probably the easiest way around the law, the “abracadabra” that made the problem go away.

It still is in most of the country: 45 states and the District of Columbia have religious exemption laws; 15 allow moral or philosophical exemptions. Facing falling vaccination rates, Vermont did away with its philosophical exemption in 2015, but it preserved the religious exemption, at which point many more parents started to have religious qualms. To apply for a Vermont exemption, you only have to sign a form that says, “I attest to holding religious beliefs opposed to immunizations.”

It’s hard to blame parents for using what works, and nothing works like religion. Our longstanding legal deference to religion is why Jews can wear yarmulkes in court, Sikh soldiers can wear beards, and employers with dress codes excluding hats can’t tell Muslim employees to remove their hijabs. It’s why Prohibition didn’t prohibit Catholics from drinking ceremonial wine.

“Religious belief” can exempt churches and schools from providing contraceptive health services to their employees. In some states it lets pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions, elected officials refuse to do their jobs and businesses refuse certain customers. It soon will let businesses with federal contracts discriminate in their hiring. And in nine out of 10 states it lets parents put other people’s children at risk.

The Washington Post reported recently that the owner of a wedding venue in Mississippi turned down an interracial couple, on account of the owner’s “Christian beliefs.” The groom’s sister shared a video of the conversation, which went viral, and shortly thereafter the owner apologized. She was wrong. She assumed the Bible forbade biracial relationships, but when she looked she couldn’t find where it did. She had never “taken the opportunity to research and find whether this was correct or incorrect.”

So if she had found relevant verses, refusing to host an interracial wedding would have been ... correct?

That doesn’t seem right. Why should religion exempt people from civil rights legislation and public health law? Maybe because, unlike parenting philosophy or political views, religious tenets can’t change over time. Religious law is rigid, so civil law must bend.

For most people, though, religion is flexible. Believers routinely ignore inconvenient or outdated passages in their holy books, choosing, for instance, to fixate on Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”) but ignore Leviticus 19:19 (“Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”). And then there are disputes among believers. Can Jews eat rice during Passover? Yes and no. Does baptism require full immersion? Yes and no.

Everybody picks among religious laws — even religions do. Just last year, the U.S. Episcopal Diocese voted to stop using masculine pronouns for God. In 2015, Pope Francis declared that, for one year only, abortion was a slightly more forgivable sin.

But if religious beliefs are not mandatory or immutable, then how are they different from secular beliefs?

They’re not. A sincere religious belief against vaccination should have the same weight as a sincere belief in whatever Jenny McCarthy says. Discrimination bolstered by Bible verses is just like the regular kind. And when those beliefs conflict with laws that protect other people’s health or civil rights, the believer shouldn’t get to wave a magic wand to make the law disappear.

As New York’s Rockland County Attorney Thomas Humachsaid when defending the government’s right to keep unvaccinated kids out of school during a measles outbreak — and as New York seems to have concluded — “In this country, individuals are free to make choices about their lives, however, those choices may have consequences.” Amen.

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Kate Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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