LETTER: Get rid of religious vaccine exemption

Connecticut legislators are considering whether to pass a bill that removes the religious exemption to school mandated vaccines. They should. Eliminating religious exemptions as NY, California and Maine have all recently done makes moral, public health and common sense. Stronger school mandates mean fewer kids missing their shots and that means fewer outbreaks, fewer hospitalizations, fewer emergency room visits, fewer dead newborns and fewer deaths from infectious diseases.

Some critics of reducing exemptions vehemently insist that tougher vaccine mandates are neither ethical nor legal. They are wrong. The long history of vaccine-mandate jurisprudence shows that American law backs protecting children and the public health over claims of religious freedom that put others at risk.

There is no absolute, inviolate right to leave children unprotected from serious disease. Newborns, children and adults with immune diseases who can’t vaccinate have rights too. Morally, children’s rights to be free from easily preventable disease ought to come first.

As for the law, for over 100 years, state and federal courts reviewing state immunization mandates have found them constitutional. In 1905, the Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld a smallpox vaccine mandate and made it clear that individual rights can be limited to protect the public health. Since then courts consistently have supported school mandates.

Nor do courts accept claims that vaccine mandates violate religious freedom. There is no constitutional right to violate laws about bigamy, child sacrifice or paying taxes because of religious objections. In the words of the Supreme Court, the “right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

Safe vaccines for Covid will soon be here. We need to be sure our children get them. The way to do that is to eliminate laws that let parents claim exemptions that hurt their kids, risk your kids’ health and put all of us at risk from deadly diseases.

Arthur Caplan, Ridgefield

Professor of medical ethics at NYU School of Medicine