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Heretic on the Hill: Help Us Fight the Latest Religious Exemption

The pandemic is receding from the public eye for now, and most indicators are where they were a year ago — meaning low active cases. But last year saw a dramatic post-summer increase in cases and hospitalizations that is likely to happen again this fall. Just as the virus doesn’t go away, neither do the issues around COVID — especially not the issues around vaccinations.

Senator Marco Rubio recently introduced the CONSCIENCE Act. I’m not going to write out the tortured full title of the bill that results in the acronym CONSCIENCE, which is ironically found in “Section One: Short Title.” This bill tells state and local governments that any COVID vaccine mandate they implement must include a religious exemption. The longer version is:

“No government shall impose or implement a COVID–19 vaccine mandate in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person’s, assembly’s, or institution’s religious exercise—
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
I remember when Republicans were against telling state and local governments what they could and couldn’t do. But they have changed their minds on a lot of issues recently.

The biggest problem in thhttps://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/novavax-vaccine-may-be-an-option-for-service-members-who-sought-religious-exemptionse bill language is in Senator Rubio’s definition of religious exercise: “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” This is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through; anyone who doesn’t like vaccines for any reason can claim a religious exemption, and the government would have to demonstrate that it meets the requirements in sections (A) and (B). This would be a waste of the government’s time and resources. Protecting the public from a pandemic should be a de facto “compelling governmental interest.”

The new Novovax vaccine is further reducing the need for a religious exemption because unlike the original vaccines, no tissue from aborted fetuses was used in its development. The claim that such tissue is in the earlier vaccines themselves is demonstrably false. So the “I won’t take a vaccine that resulted from abortions because of my religious beliefs” defense is going to become moot. (I wonder if someone refusing a vaccine because their religious beliefs do not allow such fetal tissue in the development process would refuse a kidney transplant from a murder victim who checked off “Donate my organs.” That kidney would also be the result of an action their religion forbids: “Thou shalt not kill.”)

The bottom line here is that vaccines work. A recent study shows that cases are two times higher among those under 65 who are unvaccinated and three times higher among those 65 and up. Hospitalization and death rates are four times higher among the elderly who are unvaccinated. There should simply be no religious exemption for people otherwise medically able to get vaccinated. This bill would give them a pass on getting vaccinated, whether their beliefs are religious or not, making them a potential danger to the public.

You can tell your Senators to oppose the Rubio bill by going to our Action Alert and sending them the vaccine mandate email.

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