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Nearer my God to thee, but not to a COVID vaccine

No major religious denomination has forbidden any of the COVID-19 vaccinations. That’s not stopping the vaccine-resistant from claiming religious exemptions.

Hundreds of people protested a mandate from Governor Charlie Baker requiring all schoolchildren in grades K-12, to receive a flu vaccination to attend school for the 2020-21 year, outside the State House, Aug. 30, 2020.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Suddenly, a lot of Americans are getting that old-time religion.

With more cities, schools and universities, and businesses enacting vaccine mandates, some trying to avoid getting vaccinated are claiming religious exemptions. Federal civil rights law states that companies must recognize “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

But something doesn’t add up about this Great Awakening. After all, no major denomination has forbidden any of the COVID-19 vaccinations.

In fact, most have openly encouraged followers to get their shot. In a message last month to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, Pope Francis said, “Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from COVID-19.”


Earlier this month, a group of Orthodox rabbis released a video advising its congregants to get vaccinated. Even the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a conservative Baptist megachurch pastor and staunch Trump supporter, said, “There is no credible religious argument against the vaccines.”

Yet that’s not stopping the vaccine-resistant from concocting their own arguments. This isn’t new. In recent years an increasing number of parents have cited religious reasons for refusing to vaccinate their children from such highly infectious diseases as mumps, measles, and polio. Widespread vaccines had all but eliminated measles and polio.

After measles outbreaks mostly among the unvaccinated in more than two dozen states in 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of its “ten threats to global health.” And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harry Mihet, chief litigation counsel at Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based evangelical organization that has filed lawsuits for those opposed to COVID vaccines, told the Globe’s Kay Lazar that his group is being deluged with e-mails and phone calls from people inquiring about how to thwart vaccine mandates.


“As more and more people are having to deal with these mandates,” Mihet said, “the number of those opposed to them will increase, not because people are all of a sudden getting religious, but because they have to all of a sudden make decisions.”

Any line between a religious belief and a personal conviction is so deliberately fuzzy that it is ceasing to exist.

For companies requiring employees to be fully vaccinated, it’s an unenviable position. They don’t want to be sued for breaking antidiscrimination laws or branded as insensitive to the religious. Yet refusing to tolerate unfounded excuses is the only way to ensure that people will feel safe returning to offices and workplaces. Vaccine mandates move everyone closer to the fuller lives many have been missing since the pandemic began, but only if they are enforced.

What makes the surge in religious exemptions even more questionable is that it comes at a time when Americans’ membership in houses of worship has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since Gallup began keeping track, more than 80 years ago. In 2020, 47 percent said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 70 percent in 1999. That decline is linked to fewer people having any religious affiliation.

Yet religious faith is being misappropriated as a legitimate reason to shun a life-saving vaccine. Last month, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi said that Christians are “a little less scared of things” because they “believe in eternal life.” Meanwhile, with its overwhelmed hospitals, abysmal vaccination rates, and no mask or vaccine mandates, Mississippi currently has the nation’s highest rate of COVID deaths, and the second highest in the world.


Back in January, before vaccine resistance aided by the Delta variant fueled a new COVID-19 surge, Pope Francis said getting vaccinated is “the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”

In the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 670,000 American, the vast majority of religious objections seem as heartless as multimillionaire televangelists begging for donations from the poor. The resistance to vaccines in America is based on dogma, but not the religious kind; instead, it rests on twisted definitions of freedom and liberty. Whether it’s a convenient ruse or intentional misinterpretation of sacred texts, religious exemptions to vaccinations are a dangerous exercise in false piousness that no mainstream denomination dictates.

For those charged with enforcing vaccine mandates, intense skepticism toward supposed religious excuses is what this crisis demands.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.