Yelling Fire in a Vaccination Clinic
Religious freedoms do not trump the rest of the Constitution
» KEY POINTS
- Even though every major religion supported getting the COVID-19 vaccine, a noticeable number of people attempted to use religious excuses to opt-out of vaccine mandates.
- All rights and responsibilities in the Constitution and the laws that support it have limits for the betterment and safety of society as a whole.
- The religious protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution are not a panacea that gives people the ability to do anything they want.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof... shall be the supreme Law of the Land...
Constitution of the United States of America
Article 6, Clause 2 (Partial)
Coming in to summer 2021, mandates for the COVID-19 vaccine began popping up around the United States. Some came directly from employers and schools, others through executive and/or legislative government action. Certain ones focused in on particular groups like health care workers while others applied to all equally across the board, so long as they were part of the assemblage of people the vaccine had been approved for. On September 9, 2021, President Joe Biden finally ran out of patience and announced the largest expansion of COVID-19 vaccine mandates to date. Seemingly, those mandates would have applied to over 100 million Americans, which amounted to nearly 2/3rds of workers in the United States.
Yet among all these mandates—aside from a few rare specific circumstances—there were exemption allowances for those who are medically unable to take the vaccine or for those having ardent religious beliefs.
The latter situation caused an interesting phenomenon. Despite no major religion prohibiting vaccines—and leaders of all major religions actively encouraged it and saying it was people’s God-given duty to take the vaccine to protect themselves and others—there was a not insignificant number of people who attempted to go down that route. Even religions like Christian Scientists that scorn almost all modern medicine do not have a vaccine prohibition, just a general tenant not to use them unless it is necessary. What people were claiming as a “religious” belief was more a “political” one, and most places required some type of essay from the objector plus testimony from a religious leader to be included with an application for an exemption.
However, not everywhere found all of this paperwork worthwhile. According the Providence Journal, as of September 2, 2021 about 1,080 students —roughly 5% of the student body—at the University of Rhode Island (URI) requested an absolution from the school’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, the majority on religious grounds. URI’s form did not require any declaration, reasoning, or justifications; all that was necessary was checking a box. Further, University of Washington Professor Doug Opel told NBCNews that he did not believe it was a good use of resources to test religious sincerity since those opting out would only amount to a small percentage of the population. If URI was a test case study of his theory, the numbers were on his side. While 5% may seem significant, the opposite side means 95% of the people took the jab either willingly or begrudgingly.
In other words: mandates work.
» DEEP DOWN INSIDE
Nevertheless, whether those claiming religious exemptions held beliefs that were sincere and true or not is actually irrelevant. Beliefs are just unprovable feelings that people act upon. If we want to go with the full spirit of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution—that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—then we should just accept whatever people say are their religious tenants. It is not the job of the Federal or State Government nor an employer or school to tell someone whether their beliefs are real or not. But that does not mean their creeds and dogma supersede everything else.
While the 1st Amendment does not allow for the establishment of a religion or the suppression of one, that privilege is not superior to all other rights, responsibilities, and requirements of the Constitution and the laws created to support it. Everything in the Constitution and the Amendments (and thus the laws birthed by them) has equal weight; all parts are as important as this one small clause. And there are limits on the freedom of religion just as there are limits on any and all parts of the Constitution.
For instance, the next line after religion says that Congress cannot make a law “abridging the freedom of speech”, but of course there are parameters around this. While this chapter’s title makes an allusion to not being able to yell fire in a crowded theater , that is actually not a good example because it is not a real law. What is real law is speech that incites hatred or calls for violence, that leads to dangerous situations, or is blatantly false—mostly through civil action like libel and slander as opposed to legal action. The point is that there are confines when it comes down to the rights in the same Amendment.
Naturally, it is not as if it ends there. Where the 2nd Amendment has been interpreted to mean every person has the right to firearms, even a State as heavily a proponent of gun-rights as Texas has laws on the books that do not allow convicted felons or intellectually disabled people to possess them; nor do they permit them inside bars or anywhere that makes 51% or more of their revenue from alcohol. In a similar vein: despite the fact that the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments all expanded the right to vote to more people (race, gender, poll tax, and age, respectively), almost all States do not allow incarcerated people to vote and many place restrictions on those same people from being able to vote once released until “all restitution has been made”.
Each of these limitations and many more have been upheld by the courts at all levels of the government. The bottom line is this: a right to practice the beliefs of your choice are not an all-encompassing panacea that gives you unlimited powers to do anything and everything you would ever want. There are bounds, and plenty already exist today as laws to protect the interests of the State, the country, and the rest of society.
» LIMIT BREAK
Religion is tempered by many different acts across the country. As an example, Jewish law calls for a body to be returned to the earth simply and without any type of adornment or preservation that slows the body from returning to dust. Traditionally, this has meant putting a body in a type of sac made out of natural fibers so that it can quickly and easily decay. However, this runs afoul of almost all State laws, including in Massachusetts whereas of 2021 people of Jewish descent represent over 4% of the population. According to the Massachusetts’ government website:
M.G.L. Chapter 114, Section 44A, requires a body to be placed in a “suitable receptacle”... The body should be placed in a rigid container lined with plastic sheeting to prevent leakage of body fluids... Most cemeteries require that the container be placed inside a concrete grave liner to prevent the ground from subsiding.
Placing a body inside a casket with a plastic liner and then putting that into a concrete grave liner is about as far as one can get from Jewish law. But the State has made its interest known for environmental reasons, as well as the protection of those handling the bodies. While there is a religious credence, one that is sincerely held and backed up by thousands of years of history, the other rights based in the Constitution and Law win out here. In the eyes of the country, it is not considered an undue burden.
In another Commonwealth down the coast, a different religious minority must also conform to the law against their greater beliefs. Pennsylvania has very detailed laws on what turn signals and break lights look like on vehicles and what type of conveyances are required to have them. Among the text, horse-drawn carriages that go on main roads and highways must have an electronic, colored turn signal system. This means that the Amish must use electricity when bringing their buggies out past their villages.
The Amish community is known for eschewing most modern conveniences, including electricity. A high-level view of their belief structures is that anything that leads to the creation of leisure time must be avoided as their days should be spent either working or in prayer. Having modern electrical amenities would get in the way of that for the most part. While there are variations between each community, some electrical use does happen, although usually not provided through the central grid. When it comes to their transport, though, they do not have a choice. This also means they need batteries of some kind to power their turn signals, something they cannot produce within their own walls. So once again, a State interest in safety and a Constitutional responsibility on maintaining Postal Roads has created a situation where religious beliefs have been subdued and subsided.
We could go on with these examples forever. Many religions, including native ones of the southwest, use hallucinatory substances in ceremonies. Those ingredients have been banned from consumption and that is enforced. There are religions that call for marrying off girls as soon as they reach puberty, but almost all States do not allow child marriages. Connecticut passed a law requiring employers to accept whatever Sabbath day an employee said they needed, but the Supreme Court held that this created an establishment preference of religion and made an undue burden on secular purposes. Bob Jones University claimed that they had sincerely held religious beliefs against interracial relationships and could use that in their admittance decisions. Instead, their bigotry cost them their tax-exempt status.
» IT’S MY LIFE
Of particular note for our purposes, the Supreme Court has upheld again and again the right to mandate vaccines against any and all objections. This applies to all public and private institutions. The enforcement mechanisms are simply not enough of an undue burden on those who claim any type of religious exemption. Once again, as discussed in the prior chapter, the setback of President Biden’s OSHA-enforced mandate was a technical one, not one on mandates in general. The mandate on healthcare workers was allowed to remain as written.
While the government cannot physically force a person to have something put into their bodies against their will, it is well within their powers over commerce to disallow those people from participating in the rest of society. Whether during the COVID-19 pandemic or some other future event, those objectors are free to go on believing whatever it is they claim is their real and true faith; they just are not guaranteed to be able to maintain a job, go into a store/restaurant/stadium, get on any mode of transport with other people, receive treatment at a private medical facility, or avoid surcharges on their insurance because of that belief.
If religion trumped all other concerns, then anyone could claim any extreme view. For instance, there are religions and groups that exist today—such as particular sects of Bedouins—that do not believe in property rights and land ownership the way we in general implement it in America. If we allowed convictions to be superior to these laws then someone could just pitch a tent in your backyard and say that their religion and belief structure allows it.
The same could be said about someone who works in a kitchen but considers it is against God’s glory to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Or another person could say that clothing blocks what God created in his own image and that we must return to how Adam and Eve lived before eating the fruit of knowledge. Should we allow these principles, as well?
Associated Press: “Texas man strips at meeting to make point on masks”.
No, we have laws that protect people, property, society, the environment, the government, and all other concerns despite whatever an individual’s or group’s beliefs may be, no matter how big that group is or how loud their voices are. Religious freedom does and should have confines, just as all other freedoms do. There is a delicate balancing act among all the many contradictory parts of the Constitution and law; but at the end of the day, it all comes down to this simple equation:
No religious belief supersedes my right to live.
The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.
Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.
About the author
J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.