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The Case Against COVID-19 Vaccine Religious Exemptions

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Editor’s Note: This article includes an interview with former UCI professor Dr. Aaron Kheriaty conducted on Nov. 21, roughly three weeks prior to his termination.   

The University of California’s current COVID-19 vaccine policy mandated full vaccinations for university members before the start of fall quarter 2021. This mandate included students, trainees, personnel and any other person who works, lives or learns at the university’s locations. A student could request vaccine exemption if they reported having a disability, medical reason or religious objection. More recently, the UC have also required all members to upload proof of a booster shot by Jan. 31.

When the health of the people around you is endangered, the only consideration a person should have is prioritizing the health of the community. A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease; a person’s religious ideology should not be held above the health of others. Vaccination policy is historically one of the most effective public health interventions in the world for saving lives. In Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “the elimination of communicable diseases through vaccination became one of the greatest achievements of public health in the 20th century.”

In August 2021, former UCI psychiatry associate professor and Medical Ethics Program Director Dr. Aaron Kheriaty sued the university because he believed that their vaccine policy failed to acknowledge people like himself who have immunity from previous COVID-19 infection. However, Kheriaty also supports all COVID-19 vaccination exemptions, including religious exemptions. 

In a blog post posted on Dec. 17,  Kheriaty shared that he was fired from UCI for his refusal of vaccination. 

Like most people who support COVID-19 vaccine religious exemptions, Kheriaty believes that religious exemptions are protected under the First Amendment. He assesses whether a vaccine mandate should or shouldn’t challenge the free exercise of religion by analyzing “the circumstances and the empirical realities at work.”

“One of the problems with our pandemic response and with [COVID-19] is that there are a lot of built-in assumptions that people have about this virus and about vaccines based on prior experience with vaccines that they’re projecting onto the [COVID-19] situation that don’t necessarily apply,” ​​​​Kheriaty said.

Kheriaty states that there isn’t a strong enough case to challenge religious exemptions because the current COVID-19 vaccines don’t have sterilizing immunity — meaning they not only diminish the risk of severe illness but also prevent infections and transmission to other people.

“The free exercise of religion is a First Amendment right, and I think it’s a natural right,” Kheriaty said. “It doesn’t mean that the free exercise of religion always trumps every other interest or public good, and that is not how the First Amendment is interpreted in our country … If we had a sterilizing [immunity] vaccine, then the common good or the social good argument would have a lot more force for the vaccines.”

While Kheriaty is correct that the COVID-19 vaccine cannot prevent all transmissions, the vaccine’s reduction of symptom severity significantly decreases the ability to infect others. Unvaccinated individuals on the other hand — especially those who, unlike Kheriaty, don’t have “recovered immunity” — generally have significantly higher transmission rates. Even Kheriaty’s “recovered immunity” argument is being called into question due to recent evidence that the Delta variant antibodies, likely what Kheriaty had, will be less protective against the Omicron variant. 

In any respect, unvaccinated people without immunity endanger the health of everyone — not just the immunosuppressed or medically exempt people but also those who are vaccinated. The debate is whether religious exemptions pose a great enough danger to the general public that it should take precedence over the First Amendment, and it’s clear from scientific data that any unvaccinated person without immunity does pose a significant danger. Therefore, the First Amendment isn’t quite compelling enough to grant religious exemptions. 

Another legal aspect that supports religious exemption is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Currently used to offer protection for workers declining vaccination due to religious beliefs, this law was created in an attempt to respect the beliefs of and protect religious people from extreme discrimination such as forced work on a religious holiday or forced removal of a religious clothing item.

Nowhere does this act imply that protection extends so far as to hold someone’s religious belief above the common or social good. While it remains important to not discriminate against someone’s religious, ideological or philosophical beliefs, those individual’s beliefs have no place in dictating a system or the wellbeing of other people who don’t share those same beliefs. 

The standard is that the government should not deny someone their freedom to exercise religion unless there is a compelling enough reason to do so. While the Supreme Court has never made clear what constitutes a “compelling reason,” protecting the community’s overall health seems like it should be one of them.  

Title VII requires businesses to “reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs or practices of employees or applicants unless doing so would impose an undue hardship upon the agency.” The Supreme Court has interpreted “undue hardship” to mean anything more than a minimal expense. According to an interpretation by University of Virginia’s School of Law professor Douglas Laycock, this would imply that employers are not required to allow religious exemption from immunizations. 

The fact that the Supreme Court has made these interpretations makes the case against religious exemptions that much more convincing; however, regardless of what’s understood at the federal level, vaccine mandates are unfortunately still decided by the state. 

Most states explicitly authorize student religious or philosophical exemptions. Despite California being one of five states that doesn’t, the University of California school system still grants religious exemptions.

“It’s not because the university thinks that [the] religious reason for not taking the vaccine is more compelling than medical reason,” Kheriaty said. “I think the university would deny religious exemptions more aggressively if it could, but it knows that then it would have to answer much harder questions in court … Lawyers don’t want to get into legal battles over the sincerity of their religious convictions or centrality of your religious convictions to your life or identity.” 

Unfortunately, this creates a loophole to get out of the vaccination requirement. The UC system should not be basing their health policies on the fear of legal battles. 

What makes the situation of religious exemptions worse is that the majority of religious exemptions have been falsely claimed, according to a survey conducted by UC Hastings law professor Dorit Reiss. Exploitation of religious exemptions has only increased since the pandemic began. 

The fear UC health officials have of challenging the First Amendment and Title VII has not only allowed dangerous populations of unvaccinated people to roam around campuses, but it also has inadvertently invited this population to grow even larger by creating the option for people to falsely affiliate with a religious objection in order to avoid vaccine mandate compliance. For years, anti-vaccine websites and forums have even admitted to these levels of exploitation of religious exemptions.  

“So can people abuse the religious exemption claim? Yes they can. Can they claim to hold beliefs that are a pretense for what is really a medical reason or personal beliefs kind of reason for not wanting the vaccine? Yes,” Kheriaty said.

While religious exemptions are a complicated legal terrain, it’s evident that the danger unvaccinated people without immunity pose to the greater health of the public should override any interpretation from the First Amendment or Title VII that an individual’s personal religious freedom should trump public wellbeing. Those legal rights protect religious beliefs, not suggest their importance is above everything else. 

With California already being one of the only states in the country that doesn’t explicitly authorize religious exemption for immunizations, the UC system needs to take that extra step to protect their universities by refusing religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines. The protection of public health should always come first. 

Erika Cao is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.