Opinion | Religious Freedom in the Age of Pandemic

NASHVILLE — In 1976 I left a small Catholic grammar school, where we prayed aloud four times a day, to attend a large public high school where we didn’t pray aloud at all. The United States Supreme Court had banned school-sponsored prayer in 1962, but nobody was keeping me from praying. I prayed for help on my biology test. I prayed for the red-haired boy in Alabama History to smile at me, and I gave a little prayer of thanksgiving when he did. I offered up silent prayers of astonishment and silent prayers of gratitude and silent prayers for peace — peace for my own agitated heart and peace for the whole agitated world. I prayed all day long, and no one in my public school had any idea I was praying at all.

It has been decades since I prayed my way through high school, but all across the red states, conservative Christians are still challenging that 1962 decision, constantly pushing the limits of what “student-led” prayer in public school, which the ruling permits, really means. Earlier this year, a 17-year-old student in Louisiana sued her school district for beginning the day with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Technically a student leads the prayer. In reality the student reads from a printout that school officials set beside the microphone.

Conservative Christians are forever trying to inject their personal religious beliefs into the public sphere. Here in Tennessee, the owner of a small-town bakery just outside Nashville recently reneged on an agreement to bake a wedding cake because the wedding in question involved two brides and no grooms. “I really enjoyed our time together and I truly wish you the best,” the shop owner texted one of the brides after the cake-tasting, “but after realizing that your union will be of the same sex, I cannot with my spiritual conviction and beliefs, do your cake!” Nevertheless, she added, “I do love you in the Lord!”

It would be almost funny if it weren’t so unfair. It’s illegal for a store owner to discriminate against customers because they happen to belong to a group against which the shopkeeper harbors a personal prejudice. It’s illegal for a racist to open a restaurant that serves only white people. Prejudice cloaked in the robes of religious faith should follow the same precedent.

Only it doesn’t. In this country, citing religious or spiritual convictions is often a surefire way to get out of doing something you’re required by law to do. If your religion claims that homosexuality is sinful, this logic goes, then why should you be required to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple? If practicing birth control runs counter to your church’s teaching, then why should the health insurance you offer your employees be required to cover a vasectomy? And why, if your religion teaches you to forego vaccines that prevent viral illnesses, should you be required to vaccinate your children?

At this very moment, nature is providing the perfect response in the form of a measles outbreak the likes of which we have not seen in this country for a quarter-century. Of the 764 confirmed cases so far this year, the vast majority are clustered in New York City, primarily in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities where some view vaccines as a violation of kosher restrictions and a danger to children’s health.

This is not a position held by most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and most ultra-Orthodox Jews are vaccinated. But enough of them are not — and there are enough pockets of other parents around the country, liberal and conservative, who have refused to vaccinate their children on religious or philosophical grounds — that health officials are scrambling. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles “eliminated” in the United States, but already this year measles cases have been confirmed in 23 states, and warm weather will likely exacerbate those numbers.

Here’s what also exacerbates those numbers: failure of political will. Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared a public health emergency and closed some New York City public schools in response to the outbreak, but so far state lawmakers have refused to revoke the religious exemption for vaccination. All 50 states require children to be vaccinated before enrolling in public school, but the vast majority of them allow for similar religious or philosophical exemptions.

Here in Tennessee, an unvaccinated man traveled to Alabama and Mississippi while infected with measles, and state health officials are now trying to reach more than 600 people in several states whom he may have exposed to the virus. Outbreaks related to other unvaccinated travelers are being reported in California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey. Almost all the victims are unvaccinated children.

Exposing others to the measles is not the same thing as exposing them to a cold. Measles can be a life-threatening illness, particularly for babies and small children. Shortly after the unvaccinated Tennessee man carried measles to Alabama, the state’s health officer confirmed its first case — in an infant too young to be vaccinated.

We live in an age of easy travel and widespread misinformation, and it’s long past time for lawmakers in this country to propose a much more reasonable definition of religious freedom. The Constitution protects my right to believe whatever I want to believe, including my right to shun science and modern medicine. It does not give me the right to expose innocent people to unnecessary suffering. Because there are people who cannot be vaccinated against deadly communicable diseases — infants, people with compromised immune systems, etc. — the decision not to vaccinate should come with some conditions. If you decide not to vaccinate your children, then they should not be allowed to take public transportation or go to public school.

Likewise, if you’re a baker whose religious convictions prevent you from baking a wedding cake for a gay couple, then you need to find a line of work that doesn’t involve selling wedding cakes from a public storefront. You can take your chances with natural family planning if that’s what your religious faith calls you to do, but you’ll still be required to offer your employees health insurance that covers birth control. Before you ask an entire student body to bow their heads and pray, remember that banning prayer in public school never stopped any child from praying. It just prevents students who don’t belong to the dominant religion from feeling ostracized.

Religious faith is a private matter between a believer and God. But how a believer lives in community with other people is something different altogether. It’s time to stop giving believers a pass just because their beliefs happen to run counter to the laws of the nation they live in. Human lives may depend on it.

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