We Must End Religious Exemptions and Ensure Equal Treatment Under the Law

plague doctor

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which I prefer to refer to as "the plague," has changed me in many ways. Like most other transformative experiences, the full extent of the changes probably won't be evident for some time. It may never be evident to me if this thing lasts as long as it now looks like it will. One surprising change I am aware of is that I have become far less tolerant of the entire concept of religious exemptions. While I was not exactly a fan of them before the plague, I now see them as a serious failing of the United States much like racism, immigration, and gun violence.

I have been fairly tolerant of many religious exemptions because I figured that the scope of the damage they did was fairly small. Sure, it sucks to be the child of a parent who yanks you out of public school and subjects you to Christian homeschooling or a Christian school, but it took me a while to realize how damaging this can be. It is far worse than I feared. But what the plague has made me realize is that religious exemptions are being allowed by our legal system to jeopardize public health. And that's just wrong. I'm sorry, but someone's "sincerely held religious beliefs" cannot be allowed to endanger others or entitle them pick and choose which laws they follow (not unlike their approach to a certain "holy" book).

Yes, I am well aware that the separation of church and state is supposed to keep government out of religion just as it is supposed to keep religion out of government. And yet, setting up a system where howling about religious beliefs absolves the believer from following the laws you and I have to follow seems fundamentally wrong. In fact, it seems like a violation of church-state separation. If we are going to allow vaccine refusal on the basis of religious nonsense, what are we going to do when a religious believer informs us that driving under the speed limit violates his or her religious beliefs? How much are we willing to let them harm us?

And let's be honest for a moment here. Does anybody really think "I believe in magic" is a valid justification to place public health and safety at risk? My guess is that even the religious believers making such claims know they are absurd. They've just found a loophole to exploit. It reminds me a bit of how some atheists like to point out that radical Muslims are using our free speech against us in various ways. The Christian extremists have found a similar loophole and are readily exploiting it to our detriment.

This is a loophole that needs to be closed and closed quickly. A religious parent should not have the right to watch her child die because life-saving medical treatment is against her "sincerely held religious beliefs." A Republican should not have the right to keep spreading a dangerous virus because of his "sincerely held religious beliefs." We have already drawn this line in some scenarios (e.g., we do not typically accept "sincerely held religious beliefs" as a legal defense for human sacrifice); we need to draw it more often and more consistently.

If a state government regulates secular daycares, it needs to regulate religious daycares in exactly the same way. Both need to be held to the same standards. Carving out exemptions for the religious daycare violates the separation of church and state by allowing the religious daycare to operate in ways the secular daycare cannot. It is an issue of basic fairness under the law. We cannot allow someone to bypass the law merely because they believe in magic.

As far as I'm concerned, the broad topic of religious exemptions is perhaps the most blatant example of religious privilege in the United States today. I am now beginning to recognize it as one of the most potentially dangerous too. These religious exemptions need to be eliminated if we care about fairness and have much hope of preserving our secular society. It is not like I started this post looking for something to be outraged about, but I seem to have found it.