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Almost every US state allows a religious exemption to vaccination requirements in schools. Some religions are opposed to vaccination as a basic principle (maybe because healing is reserved for God or something like that), and those obviously fall under the religious exemption.

Judaism is not one of those religions. If someone claims that it is and requests a religious exemption on those grounds, I understand that the government is not going to dig any deeper and deal with questions of religious law. But as far as I understand, the more usual claim is along the lines of "mumble mumble dangerous mumble autism mumble mumble and Judaism requires me to keep my kids out of danger, so therefore religiously I'm not allowed to vaccinate them." (See the deservedly downvoted answers to the linked question.)

Does that really support a religious exemption? It's not even a religious argument!

Or to put it another way, comparing these four claims:

  1. vaccination
    1. My religion says that healing is reserved for God so I can't vaccinate
    2. My religion puts a high value on human life and Dr. Quack says vaccines are dangerous so I can't vaccinate
  2. accomodations at work
    1. I'm Sabbath observant. I'll have to miss the Friday afternoon meetings during the winter
    2. My religion says I should use my time wisely. The Wednesday 2PM meeting is a waste of time, we never do anything productive, so therefore I can't come to it.

1.2 and 2.2 look basically the same to me. Is there a difference between them? Does 1.2 work? (Apparently it does, because people use it.) Does 2.2 work? (That would be really useful!)

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's only tangentially about the law or legal issues and belongs on judaism.stackexchange.com – BlueDogRanch Nov 20 '18 at 15:07
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    @BlueDogRanch what? it's exactly about how the law sees the religious argument. I'm presenting a religious argument that people make and asking why (and if) it's legally accepted. I'm specifically not asking about whether it's religiously valid. – Heshy Nov 20 '18 at 15:09
  • In the workplace, these would be held up against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which in summary, says "A religious practice may be sincerely held by an individual even if newly adopted, not consistently observed, or different from the commonly followed tenets of the individual's religion.", so long as it does not put undue hardship on the business, the business must accommodate it. I'm not sure about schools though, especially private ones. – Ron Beyer Nov 20 '18 at 15:42
  • @RonBeyer yes, I understand that if someone claims Judaism doesn't allow vaccines, even though it's not true according to "commonly followed tenets", that would be accepted. I'm asking about the other case - someone claims that Judaism values life (true) and vaccines are dangerous (false). The core premise of the argument has nothing to do with religion and is provably false. – Heshy Nov 20 '18 at 15:47
  • It doesn't matter though, that is what the quote is saying. If that individual holds that to be part of their religious belief, then the employer is obligated to accommodate that, even if that belief is false (in their eyes) or not commonly held by the other practitioners of the religion. – Ron Beyer Nov 20 '18 at 15:49
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The legal question is whether there is a religion-specific exception to mandatory vaccination laws, and if so where does it come from? These are state-specific laws, so one would have to look at a specific state to answer the question. In Washington, this is implemented in the exemptions section, RCW 28A.210.090

(1)(b) A written certification signed by any parent or legal guardian of the child or any adult in loco parentis to the child that the religious beliefs of the signator are contrary to the required immunization measures; or (c) A written certification signed by any parent or legal guardian of the child or any adult in loco parentis to the child that the signator has either a philosophical or personal objection to the immunization of the child.... (2)(c) Any parent or legal guardian of the child or any adult in loco parentis to the child who exempts the child due to religious beliefs pursuant to subsection (1)(b) of this section is not required to have the form provided for in (a) of this subsection signed by a health care practitioner if the parent or legal guardian demonstrates membership in a religious body or a church in which the religious beliefs or teachings of the church preclude a health care practitioner from providing medical treatment to the child.

In other words, you have to just say you object for one of these reasons, or you have to show that you are a member of a sect that is known to object. The law does not, however, provide a central registry of churches whose teachings preclude immunization, not is there any investigation of the claim allowed under the law.

In Nevada, NRS 392.437 does not expressly include the personal-or-philosophical exception contained in Washington law:

A public school shall not refuse to enroll a child as a pupil because the child has not been immunized pursuant to NRS 392.435 if the parents or guardian of the child has submitted to the board of trustees of the school district or the governing body of a charter school in which the child has been accepted for enrollment a written statement indicating that their religious belief prohibits immunization of such child.

However, there is, likewise, no further vetting of the claim for exemption where the state determines if the religion claim is real. Nevertheless, under a Nevada-type law, one would have to make the claim that the belief was religious in nature, in order to claim the Free-Exercise exemption.

California has no such exemptions – they eliminated an existing exemption – and predictable they were sued (Brown v. Smith). The state district court rejected a free exercise argument, though one based on the California constitution (the court however cited various free exercise rulings in the US). That court points to case law saying that "the state’s wish to prevent the spread of communicable diseases clearly constitutes a compelling interest", suggesting that such a law might pass strict scrutiny (the First Amendment has limited exceptions).

The ultimate legal source of such exceptions is the First Amendment, specifically the "Free Exercise Clause". In a nutshell, that says that the government cannot prohibit a person from exercising their religious beliefs. If that means you must pray at noon, you must be allowed to pray at noon; if that means that you cannot eat lettuce, you cannot be forced to eat lettuce. Because "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", the government also may not get into the business of approving or disapproving religions.

The courts have indicated that a personal or subjective belief does not enjoy Free Exercise protection. In Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 the court commented that

Although a determination of what is a "religious" belief or practice entitled to constitutional protection may present a most delicate question, the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests. Thus, if the Amish asserted their claims because of their subjective evaluation and rejection of the contemporary secular values accepted by the majority, much as Thoreau rejected the social values of his time and isolated himself at Walden Pond, their claims would not rest on a religious basis. Thoreau's choice was philosophical and personal, rather than religious, and such belief does not rise to the demands of the Religion Clauses.

Somewhat contradictorily, in US v. Seeger, the court held that "The test of religious belief within the meaning of the exemption in § 6(j) is whether it is a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption", but "The exemption does not cover those who oppose war from a merely personal moral code, nor those who decide that war is wrong on the basis of essentially political, sociological or economic considerations, rather than religious belief", and "There is no issue here of atheistic beliefs, and, accordingly, the decision does not deal with that question" (that is, the court did not rule on atheistic religious beliefs).

Under the premise that one claims a religious exemption, there is no further investigation as to how compelling the claim is. On the other hand, if one makes a claim that merely looks like slapping the religion label on a personal objection, one might well run afoul of the state law, and then the courts might be forced to judge that very delicate question. This could arise, for instance, in the context of the Islamic distinction between haram and makruh acts, where the former are absolutely forbidden and the latter are "recommended against".

  • "a claim that merely looks like slapping the religion label on a personal objection" - to me that sounds exactly like the claims I'm asking about in the question. – Heshy Nov 21 '18 at 18:44

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