In the national debate over immunizing children, much has been said about "religious objections" to vaccines claimed by parents. Finding a religion whose tenets object to the practice, however, is difficult.
The number of students receiving vaccination exemptions for any reason is relatively small, the Federal Centers for Disease Control reported. Surveying the 2012-13 school year, the agency reported, "an estimated 91,453 exemptions were reported among a total estimated population of 4,242,558 kindergartners, roughly 2 percent of the nation's newest students.
But many of these exemptions, the CDC reports, are for philosophical reasons. California, for example, reported 14,921 philosophical exemptions in 2012 and zero religious ones, while Illinois reported 8,082 religious exemptions and none on philosophical grounds.
And while the question of personal objections to vaccinations remains a hot topic, one aspect seems to be indisputable: No major religion explicitly objects to immunization. The Deseret News identified one faith, with approximately 12,000 members, that has a tenet explicitly rejecting injections or vaccines of any kind.
But the world's major faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam — have no explicit prohibitions against oral or injected vaccines. At times, some followers or preachers within a given religion or sect may have spoken against vaccination, but researcher John D. Grabenstein of Merck Vaccines, writing in the scientific journal Vaccine in April 2013, could find no sustained teaching against the practice in any major faith community.
In fact, Grabenstein wrote, "multiple religious doctrines or imperatives call for preservation of life, caring for others, and duty to community (e.g., parent to child, neighbors to each other)."
In an interview, Grabenstein said many religious objections were "about safety concerns, not about theology, (even though) people who went to a church, or mosque or synagogue, said 'I'm not going to get a vaccine because of my religion.'"
Mark S. Movsesian, a law professor at St. John's University in Queens, New York, who specializes in religious liberty issues, agrees.
"The people who are claiming these exemptions, it's not religious exemption, but 'personal belief,'" he said. "My impression is, that's what most of the objection is about."
Writing on the website for First Things magazine, Movsesian also denied that conscience exemptions could be blamed on the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, he noted, the Hobby Lobby majority opinion specifically excluded vaccines from such conscience protections.
Not Christian Scientists
While members of the Christian Science Church are noted for relying on spiritual healing, the organization does not list a formal policy against immunizations on its website.
Church founder Mary Baker Eddy said in 1901 that members should comply with vaccination mandates, according to Boston College history professor Alan Rogers, whose 2014 book "The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children," examined legal cases involving children in the movement.
Because Eddy, who died in 1910, has spoken on the subject, Rogers said, "the (Christian Science) Church took no official position against vaccination. But, since the central belief of the Scientists was that there was no material reality, that the human body was a manifestation of God's perfect spiritual world, there was no need for vaccination. Indeed, to choose vaccination would be to deny that religious 'reality.'"
A spokesperson for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was not immediately available for comment.
One religious group that explicitly forbids vaccinations, surgeries, medicine and anything invasive is the New Jersey-based Congregation of Universal Wisdom, founded by 71-year-old chiropractor Walter P. Schilling. He said the group has "11,600 members in 48 states and a couple of foreign countries." On its website, the group classifies as "sacrilege" the "injection into the body of medication or other matter of substances that defy natural law."
"The immunization thing isn't the driving force, it's about keeping the body pure," Schilling said. "We're looking for the natural, innate ability of the body to heal itself."
The group's beliefs have withstood legal challenge. In 2002, Kelly Turner, a Congregation of Universal Wisdom adherent, had her objections to immunizing her daughter recognized as religious by the federal District Court in Syracuse, New York, despite school authorities' contention that it wasn't a bona fide religious belief.
Exemption repeal pondered
While 20 states allow some measure of personal belief exemption, continuing instances of disease outbreaks related to unvaccinated children have caused legislators to re-examine the doctrine.
California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and Democrat from Sacramento, introduced a bill this week that would repeal that state's personal belief exemption, the one used by nearly 15,000 kindergartner's parents in 2012.
"As a pediatrician, I’ve been worried about the anti-vaccination trend for a long time," Pan said in a statement. "I’ve personally witnessed the suffering caused by these preventable diseases, and I am very grateful to the many parents that are now speaking up and letting us know that our current laws don’t protect their kids."
In 2012, Pan sponsored, and the Legislature passed, a bill requiring those who claim a vaccination exemption to talk with a "licensed health care practitioner" about potential impacts in their communities. That bill cut personal exemptions by 20 percent in its first year, Pan said, but some California communities still have opt-out rates of more than 10 percent, which endangers others at risk for infection.
Health advocates stress the issue is one of community protection and not a religious rights conflict.
"There's not two sides of the story," said Diane Peterson, associate director of the Immunization Action Coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota. "There's the side that 95 percent of the nation support and then there's the hardcore (of people who) never met a vaccine they liked."
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