A new survey suggests Americans are almost evenly divided about whether people should be allowed to opt out of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of their religious beliefs.
About 51% of Americans oppose allowing religious exemptions for people who otherwise would be required to get the shot, while about 48% support such exemptions, the Public Religion Research Institute found in a survey published Wednesday.
Two Christian groups stood out as being particularly supportive of religious exemptions ― white evangelicals (65%) and Protestants of color (60%). Mainline Protestants are divided about half and half, while less than half of white Catholics (43%) and the religiously unaffiliated (34%) approve of faith-based exemptions in the case of coronavirus vaccination.
PRRI’s CEO, Robert Jones, suspects that white evangelicals and Protestants of color both support religious exemptions because they are skeptical about the vaccine ― albeit for different reasons. White evangelicals’ hesitation is likely rooted in their attitudes about the virus overall, Jones told HuffPost. Taking early cues from then-President Donald Trump, white evangelicals have been less likely than other religious groups to see the pandemic as a critical issue.
On the other hand, Black and brown communities can be distrustful of public health efforts because of historic inequities, Jones said.
“While African Americans take the threat seriously, there is also among this group distrust of the medical establishment that is rooted in concrete experiences such as the infamous decades-long Tuskegee syphilis experiment and a wide range of experiences of discrimination when accessing health care,” he said.
Since the vaccine rollout is still in its early stages, Americans’ opinions on religious exemptions could shift in the future.
As of now, there’s little indication that the federal government will require all Americans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week that it’s too early to consider such a mandate. However, according to federal guidelines issued in December, businesses can require workers to get vaccinated against the virus, as long as employers allow people to claim religious and medical exemptions.
While American adults are broadly divided about allowing religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines, they are much less supportive of letting kids skip the childhood vaccines that states require to attend public schools. Most Americans (73%) don’t want to let parents use religious objections to opt their kids out of those shots. Only 46% of white evangelicals and 26% of Protestants of color support such exemptions.
Robert Field, a health management and policy professor at Drexel University, told HuffPost that he’s not surprised by the different approaches that people have to the COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccines required for children to attend public schools.
“My speculation is that the childhood vaccines have a multi-decade history to them. They’re widely accepted, while the COVID-19 vaccines are brand-new and continue to come on the market,” Field said.
Most major American religions have no formal prohibitions against vaccination. Still, U.S. courts have sanctioned granting religious exemptions to people whose denominations officially support vaccines, as long as the individual claims a sincere and personal objection, according to Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, an expert on vaccine law and policy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Courts have also struck down laws requiring a letter from clergy or another religious official, she said, because that discriminates against people who have faith-based objections but are not part of an organized religion.
These strong religious liberty protections make it hard to monitor the sincerity of individuals’ views, she said. “Most states with religious exemptions do not have real oversight over whether there is, in fact, religious objection,” Reiss noted.
“Further, this jurisprudence means that people who can make the right claims ― for example, people who can afford legal representation or are, themselves, more sophisticated liars ― are more likely to get an exemption than people with the same views that are more honest, or less sophisticated, or lack access to representation,” she said.
Research has shown that broader non-medical exemptions to vaccines lead to higher rates of exemption ― and more outbreaks, Reiss said.
“Very broad religious exemptions could undermine ending the pandemic,” she added.
So far, only about 3.4% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, receiving two doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Scientists are not yet certain what percentage of the population needs to get vaccinated for the country to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.
President Joe Biden said this week that the nation will have enough supply by the end of July to inoculate 300 million Americans.
PRRI’s survey of 1,019 adults was conducted online between Jan. 15 and 18. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points.
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