A REVIEW OF SCHOOL VACCINATION RATES in New York showed low vaccine rates in a potpourri of schools: some yeshivas, but also Waldorf schools, self-described “progressive” schools, a Seventh-day Adventist school, and Christian homeschool co-ops. Protestant and Catholic private schools generally had high vaccination rates.
In Rockland County, health officials tried not to single out Orthodox Jewish communities, instead issuing a blanket order against unvaccinated children in schools. That prompted a lawsuit from parents of unvaccinated children who were barred from their school, Green Meadow Waldorf School, which had a 37 percent total vaccination rate in 2018.
In affidavits attached to the lawsuit, parents explained their beliefs against vaccinating their children: Some based it on Christian faith, some on Shinto beliefs, and some on their own medical research.
One Christian parent, signing an affidavit as M.R., stated that the Bible had “entrusted us as parents [not the State of New York] with the care and welfare of the children (1 Timothy 5:8).” The parent said based on “research we conducted” the family had decided not to vaccinate, but then after the outbreak had their oldest child vaccinated.
Another Christian parent at Waldorf, signing an affidavit as L.V.G., argued that vaccines are derived from aborted fetuses, and that to take them would be complicity with murder. (Some vaccines were initially developed with aborted fetal cell lines, but no new lines have been created to continue production of vaccines. “Accepting these vaccines does not endorse or encourage abortions being done today,” said Dr. Gene Rudd in a Christian Medical & Dental Associations statement on the issue.)
Other parents cited Buddhist and Shinto beliefs that vaccines interfere with the natural course of illnesses, part of a child’s “destiny,” wrote parent K.K. in the affidavit. “Ultimately it is not our job to ‘play God,’ deciding which suffering our children will be excused from.”
A vegetarian couple cited the vaccines as having animal substances. Another parent, L.P., cited karma, reincarnation, and “anthroposophy,” where children are spiritual beings who choose their parents. Injecting “anything foreign” into her daughter’s bloodstream would be a violation.
For 15 years at his Illinois practice, Christian pediatrician Greg Garrison would listen and talk through vaccine doubts with Christian parents. He noticed the arguments shift over time. As more and more studies refuted any autism link to vaccines, parents began to associate vaccines with PANDAS (a strep complication), or they would ask for a delay in the schedule of vaccines. The conversations were time-consuming and often fruitless. The doctors at the practice decided five years ago that for all new patients, they would ask them to agree to the recommended schedule of vaccines.
“They just don’t want to let go, even with clear, objective information,” said Garrison. “I tell parents all the time, I practice in God’s grace, and there’s a lot we don’t know. But God has blessed people with knowledge and there are things that can be helpful, and they’re factual. But it doesn’t take anything away from God and His omnipotence and power. And I come back to, you wouldn’t … have a discussion with a surgeon about a need for an appendectomy.”
In the absence of convincing conversations, the government has stepped in. The number of people seeking state exemptions for vaccines has been climbing in the last decade. The New York Legislature now has a bill that would eliminate the religious exemption to vaccines, but that bill hasn’t yet found momentum despite the outbreak.
Edward Mechmann, a lawyer with the New York State Catholic Conference, said the Legislature seems content with leaving the issue to local health authorities. Other Christians working in Albany are quietly hoping for the preservation of the exemption even as they support vaccination.
Christian lobbyists I talked to distinguish between vaccines. For example, New York doesn’t mandate the HPV vaccine, but because of that particular vaccine, Christian lobbyists remain wary of efforts to mandate all vaccines.
California ended a “personal belief” exemption to vaccines in 2016 after a major measles outbreak. Both federal and state courts upheld the elimination of the exemption, after parents filed lawsuits saying it infringed on their religious rights. No Christian schools or religious liberty law firms challenged the California measure in court.