Belief in Magic Should Not Absolve Anyone From Being a Responsible Adult

burning face mask

There have been some exceptions, but it seems like federal courts have generally been allowing city and state governments to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for their employees (here's an example in Chicago). I recognize that vaccine mandates are controversial, and I wish they were not necessary; however, I do support them. Those of us who are public employees should be vaccinated to protect the public with whom we interact. And while protecting public health strikes me as something that is in everybody's interest, it is clear that some people require a mandate. As for religious exemptions to these mandates, they strike me me as troubling examples of religious privilege and unequal treatment under the law. Believing in magic should not be accepted by anyone as a valid excuse for disregarding vital public health measures.

Fortunately, some courts have been willing to weaken these religious exemptions a bit, apparently recognizing that they have limits. For example a federal court in Pennsylvania allowed those with religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement to be required to submit to regular COVID testing to maintain their religious exemption. While getting vaccinated would be preferable, this alternative requirement of regular testing seems worth considering.

Most atheists are familiar with the meaning of religious privilege and can cite many examples of it. Allowing anyone to be exempt from measures aimed at preserving public health merely because they profess religious beliefs seems difficult to justify, especially in the case of an infectious disease. Their refusal jeopardizes our health, and that should not be permitted. Most of the time one hears atheists complaining about religious privilege, the potential harm of the privilege probably falls into the annoyance category; this one seems different.

I'm now imagining a bizarre scenario where a government banned door-to-door proselytizing but then granted an exception only for Mormons (or atheists). That would not be fair, and I suspect my Southern Baptist neighbors would be among the first to (correctly) label it as unfair. But even that odd scenario would not be as bad as what is happening with religious exemptions to vaccines. I may be annoyed by religious proselytizing, but I'm probably not going to end up dying in a hospital I can't afford as a result of it.

I do not buy the claim that governments cannot reign in religious believers without violating the separation of church and state, and I suspect I have a lot of company here. There are all sorts of laws to which religious believers are held accountable in exactly the same way those of us in the reality-based community are held accountable. I see no reason why vaccines developed to address serious infectious diseases should be treated any differently. The evangelical fundamentalist Christian who murders a child because they suspected demonic possession is going to prison (I hope). Should the evangelical fundamentalist Christian who ends up infecting the same child with COVID-19 just be overlooked?

Why do we grant religious exemptions in the first place? Are they necessary at all? Most people seem content to look the other way when it comes to religious exemptions even when it is clear that some of them lead to unnecessary suffering. Perhaps this needs to change. Maybe it is time for the grown-ups to stop indulging those who refuse to behave as socially responsible citizens.