Should there be religious exemptions to vaccine requirements?

A nurse administers a vaccine into a male patient's arm (Rhoda Baer, National Cancer Institute via Creative Commons)

As COVID-19 cases pop up across the globe, scientists and health officials are scrambling to create a new coronavirus vaccine. Will religious communities take advantage of their work if they succeed?

Few faith groups formally condemn vaccinations, but that hasn’t stopped many parents from claiming religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. Such exemptions are available in 45 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

However, amid a recent surge in measles cases, policymakers in several countries and states have moved to reduce access to vaccine exemptions. 

In 2019, legislators in New York and Maine eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions to vaccine requirements and Washington stopped allowing families to cite personal beliefs to avoid the measles vaccine. Several more states debated and continue to debate similar changes. 

The lawmakers behind these policy shifts and proposals have faced stiff pushback from many community members, including some religious leaders. This edition of ReligionLink explores surrounding debates, highlighting 18 experts on the relationship between vaccines and religion.

Related research

Background information

U.S. sources

  • Ellen Wright Clayton

    Ellen Wright Clayton is a professor of pediatrics, law and health policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She also holds an appointment in the university’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. She has advised numerous federal and international bodies on topics including children’s health and the ethics of research involving human subjects.

  • James Colgrove

    James Colgrove is a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. He is the author of State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America.

  • Sue Collins

    Sue Collins is a co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice. She helped defeat the New Jersey Legislature’s effort to end religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. Arrange an interview through the coalition’s contact form.

  • Farr Curlin

    Farr Curlin is a professor of medical humanities at Duke Divinity School. He’s also a hospice and palliative care physician. Curlin studies the role religion plays in a doctor’s clinical decisions and the relationship between religion and medicine more broadly.

  • Aaron Glatt

    Dr. Aaron Glatt is chairman of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York. He has urged members of the Jewish community to get vaccinated in columns and interviews, arguing against the idea that vaccines violate Jewish teaching.

    Contact: 516-497-7422.
  • John Grabenstein

    John Grabenstein is the associate director for scientific communications for the Immunization Action Coalition. He is the author of a 2013 review of religious teachings related to vaccines.

  • Paul Harris

    Paul Harris is a Republican representative in the Washington House of Representatives. He sponsored the 2019 legislation ending the personal belief exemption to the state MMR vaccine requirement. Contact Kent Livingston to arrange an interview.

  • Marie T. Hilliard

    Marie T. Hilliard is a senior fellow with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, where she also serves as director of bioethics and public policy. The center offers a resource guide on Catholicism and the use of vaccines.

  • Peter Hotez

    Peter Hotez is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He worked on research teams that developed vaccines for hookworm, schistosomiasis and SARS. Hotez is also the author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician and Autism Dad.

  • Brad Hoylman

    Brad Hoylman is a Democratic state senator in New York. He sponsored the 2019 legislation that eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements. Arrange an interview through Avi Small.

  • Mark Movsesian

    Mark Movsesian directs the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University, where he also teaches contract law. He co-hosts the “Legal Spirits” podcast on law and religion, which covered the “anti-vaxx” movement in 2019.

  • Avi Schnall

    Avi Schnall directs Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office. He spoke out against ending religious exemptions to vaccines when the issue was before the New Jersey Legislature.

    Contact: 732-806-9019.
  • Ryan Tipping

    Ryan Tipping is a Democratic representative in the Maine House of Representatives. He sponsored the 2019 legislation that ended nonmedical vaccine exemptions.

  • Josh Williams

    Josh Williams is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He researches how religion influences people’s views on vaccines.

International sources

  • Roberto Burioni

    Roberto Burioni is a professor of microbiology and virology at San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy. He helps lead online campaigns to educate Italian families about vaccine science.

  • Susan Close

    Susan Close is the state Labor Party member for Port Adelaide in the South Australian Parliament. She previously served as South Australia’s minister for education and child development and oversaw the passage of a 2017 law banning unvaccinated children from enrolling in preschools and child care centers.

  • Heidi Larson

    Heidi Larson directs the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she also teaches anthropology. She previously served as head of global immunization communication for UNICEF.

  • Yakov Litzman

    Rabbi Yakov Litzman is Israel’s deputy minister of health. Vaccinations aren’t mandatory in Israel, but Litzman has expressed support for changing that in recent years.

    Contact: +972 02 5081325.