Illinois should end religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination and testing

Illinois should end religious exemptions to COVID-19
vaccination and testing 1

This week, state lawmakers are expected to consider a proposal that would effectively end a big part of the debate regarding COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates.

And honestly, we’re having a hard time grasping why any elected official who cares about putting this pandemic behind us, for good, would oppose a carefully crafted plan to accomplish that.

As the Sun-Times’ Rachel Hinton reported this week, legislators have been considering a proposal that would ban employees from citing moral or religious beliefs as a valid reason for refusing to comply with a workplace mandate for COVID-19 vaccination or testing.

This editorial board has supported the concept of granting religious exemptions to vaccines, on a very limited basis, to those who can demonstrate that their opposition is based on sincere, deeply held beliefs. Absent a deadly pandemic that continues to disrupt daily life, we might well continue to hold to that view.

But as a matter of public health — including the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons — a ban on such exemptions, focused solely on COVID-19 vaccines and testing, is the right move.

Legislators should hammer out the details and take this step, for the sake of ending this pandemic as quickly as possible.

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The amendment, filed by state Rep. Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, would change the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act to make clear that public officials and private companies can impose COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirements as a condition of employment.

But recently, a small group of unvaccinated teachers in the southern Illinois town of Nauvoo has relied on the law as the basis for their argument against both vaccine and COVID-19 testing requirements. Other workers have followed suit, with lawyers ginning up cases on behalf of those who stubbornly refuse to get vaccinated.


The act was originally intended to protect health care workers who refused to provide abortion or contraceptive services on moral or religious grounds. The proposed legislation would not change that, nor should it.

The urgent goal here is to end a pandemic, not to ignite a battle over abortion rights.

Public opinion, faith traditions

In an ideal world, mandates aimed at ending a pandemic would not be necessary. Everyone who could be vaccinated would do so, quickly and willingly, for their sake and the sake of the community as a whole.

After all, concern for others is a core tenet of most religious traditions.

But consider the current state of our country: Just 57% of Americans are fully vaccinated, far short of the 80% scientists say is needed to reach herd immunity and protect the population as a whole.

An issue of public health, involving a vaccine that has been proven safe and effective in multiple clinical trials, has become a flashpoint for political battles. Wacky, sometimes dangerous misinformation proliferates.

Too often, refuseniks take cover under the guise of moral beliefs.

Judging their sincerity, which is required to grant religious exemptions, is subjective and problematic. It’s a matter of interpretation, not certainty, which ought to be the standard when it comes to judging matters of science and health.

And as a report in the scientific journal Vaccine found, none of the world’s major faiths argues in favor of avoiding vaccines.

The report, from 2012 — long before the pandemic — identified more than 60 cases of vaccine-preventable infectious disease outbreaks that either occurred within religious communities or that spread from them to broader communities.

“In multiple cases, ostensibly religious reasons to decline immunization actually reflected concerns about vaccine safety or personal beliefs among a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections per se,” the report states.

Meanwhile, public opinion is on the side of mandates.

In a September Gallup poll, roughly 60% of respondents said they favored President Joe Biden’s vaccination mandate for federal workers, as well as mandates imposed by private companies, hospitals and health care facilities.

Here’s the bottom line: No workplace mandate forces anyone to be vaccinated against their beliefs. Employees can still refuse.

Employers then have a right to kick them off the job.

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