Let me start by thanking those who decided to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Your decision has reduced my chances of getting COVID-19 and has reduced the chance of all the children under 12 getting COVID-19, children who do not have a choice because they cannot get the vaccine. Whether you decided because of a self-interest in not wanting to risk getting seriously ill or because of a sense of social responsibility in being part of a society that can only thrive by cooperating and helping each other out — whatever the reason, thank you. Because COVID-19 is a very infectious disease, your decision affects my and other people’s health.
A recent episode of NPR’s “1A” about dealing with the anger from vaccination impatience and David French’s essay last Sunday about the religious liberty argument in refusing the COVID vaccines got me to wondering how broad a scope our school districts and Kern Community College District will use in granting religious exemptions to getting vaccinated.
A lot of the anger and impatience arises from the emotional whiplash we had as we went from the fear we experienced in spring and summer 2020 because of the great uncertainty about COVID-19 and the hundreds of thousands of people who died from it, to the hope we had in spring 2021 as the surge was dying down and we had several effective vaccines to choose from, to the extreme frustration as the preventable delta variant surge is now stressing our hospitals again as something like 95 percent to 99 percent of the COVID hospitalizations are unvaccinated people.
I can have a conversation with someone who is worried about the safety of the vaccine. I can understand that hesitancy and point out the literally millions upon millions of people who’ve taken the shot now without any problems or use the response of Ryan, a teenager in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.: “I wasn't really that worried ’cause I saw they was giving it to rich white people first, so I was like, I'm cool with it.” All of the living past U.S. presidents got vaccinated, including Trump.
What concerns me is the use of religion as a pretext for the simple desire to do what you want. French notes that the relentless focus “on religious liberty has obscured two realities — that our liberties have limits when they collide with the rights of others, and that the exercise of our liberty carries with it profound moral responsibility.” My liberty does not extend to endangering your life or to impairing your ability to pursue happiness because of long-haul COVID or breaking the social safety net from overloaded hospitals and worn-out or sick nurses and doctors.
In my religious tradition, there is the commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” and many other religious traditions have something very similar to that as well. There are a few tiny religious sects that reject ordinary science-based medicine but most of those asking today for a religious exemption from vaccinations in general or just the COVID vaccine are not from those religious sects. Instead, they’re seeking to satisfy their desires or appease their fears by operating from a broken moral framework. As French notes, the proper framework is, “Take prudent measures to protect yourself. When you choose to take risks, take risks for others. And always recognize that liberty isn’t license. Believers should seek freedom to pursue virtue ...” by taking care of themselves so that they can care for others, i.e., think of the welfare of others before your own.
I hope that readers of this who are focused on religious liberty will have a softening of the heart or that this essay will help frame some of the discussions vaccinated readers have with their unvaccinated loved ones. I also hope that those in charge of granting religious exemptions in our school districts and KCCD will be a bit more critical in examining religious freedom claims than solely relying on a note from a pastor. Unfortunately, too many religious leaders today are operating from a broken moral framework. Perhaps an accommodation for students with religious exemptions would be to ensure a quality distance education option for them but not allow them to harm the education of other students.