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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

The Downside of Religious Exemptions

child getting vaccine

In an effort to address the worst #measles outbreak the U.S. has experienced in decades, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a bill ending vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs. The state has been the hardest hit by the virus, due in large part to low vaccination rates in Orthodox Jewish communities.

The #religiousexemption, which exists in some form in most states, allows parents to opt their school-age children out of required #vaccines citing their religious beliefs. Supporters of keeping the religious exemptions say religious freedom should not be overpowered by state laws. However, several other states, including California, Mississippi and Arizona, have passed laws banning vaccine exemptions on religious grounds. These exemption laws (state and federal) often are termed or known as “RFRAs” or religious freedom restoration acts.

New York’s action has added fuel to what is becoming a heated debate. Freedom of religion is one of our country’s most fundamental rights. Religious exemption laws typically allow anyone to challenge any state or local law that they do not want to comply with. Unfortunately, this includes laws designed to protect all citizens from various forms of discrimination.

The debate is taking place on the national level as well. A regulation allowing individuals and health care organizations to opt out of providing health care services if they object on religious or moral grounds has been finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services. The exemption can pertain to abortion, sex reassignment surgery and assisted suicide, among other procedures.

In unveiling the rule, the Trump administration insisted it does not allow discrimination against women, LGBTQ people or religious minorities. However, advocates for reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights are questioning whether the administration’s rule is constitutional, and worry it will ultimately result in women and LGBTQ individuals being denied health care.

While the new rule generally restores regulations from the George W. Bush era, it also changes definitions to allow health care providers to refuse services on broader grounds. For example, a health worker can object to not only performing an abortion, but also to participating in anything connected to an abortion procedure such as counseling or referrals. The same concept applies to health care providers’ decisions not to treat transgender patients seeking sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy. Such “conscience protections” are now technically enforceable for those who object to comprehensive approaches to combating HIV/AIDS, and many in the LGBTQ community fear the rule may make it harder to access health care in general.

While it is important to ensure that health care workers are not forced to betray their personal beliefs, these regulations risk prioritizing providers’ rights over patients’ rights and can encourage discrimination against already vulnerable patient populations. This can be particularly challenging in rural areas, which are experiencing increasing shortages of healthcare and other service providers.

Services including health screenings, job training, food banks, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and child welfare services are often provided by organizations with religious affiliations. Although these institutions are not inherently discriminatory, federal and state religious exemptions are increasingly allowing them to refuse to adhere to existing nondiscrimination laws. If they are the only local provider available, these exemptions will allow them to deny critical services to populations that have no other option.

Everyone is equal under the law, and religious exemptions need to be balanced with the rights of individuals. If you or a loved one are concerned or confused about your rights, please contact us at 973-509-8500 x213 or email

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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