Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
When President Joe Biden announced a raft of new vaccine requirements last week – for federal employees as well as businesses with over 100 employees – he drew the administration into a debate that had already been roiling corporations that had instituted their own mandates. What is industry – and now, government – to do about vaccine resisters, especially those drawing on religious exemptions?
Over the past year, a veritable cottage industry of religious exemptions has sprouted up as a workaround for political opposition to vaccination, with preachers and pastors offering letters – sometimes for a price – that attest to the ways the Covid-19 vaccine conflicted with their religion.
The administration sidestepped the question to some extent by including in its measures a weekly testing regimen for those who remain unvaccinated. But not all companies have adopted that same framework. United Airlines, for instance, plans to put some of its unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave until the pandemic begins to ebb. Fox News, meanwhile, has adopted a more rigorous version of the Biden administration’s mandate, with a daily testing requirement for unvaccinated staff – even as the network’s leading and loudest voices have been smearing the administration on their air as “authoritarian.”
The White House, in return, offered praise for Fox to CNN: “We are glad they have stepped up to protect their workforce and strengthen the economy, and we encourage them convey to their audience that these types of practices will protect their employees, their communities, and the economy….”
That seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Yet this hypocrisy and the battle over vaccine requirements writ large – particularly the turn to religious exemptions – are not solely a product of America’s environment of hyper-partisan reactions to pandemic restrictions (first visible in the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the spring of 2020 and now back in full force in resistance to vaccines). The tension also reflects historical debates about the appropriate balance among government authority, religious freedom and the public good. That history reveals how religious exemptions were co-opted first by the anti-vaccination movement and then by the increasingly radicalized American right.
Such a longer view can and should inform how we think about vaccine resistance (refusing to take a vaccine) as something different from vaccine hesitance (uncertainty about taking a vaccine).
Vaccine resisters have been around a long time, and are hardly a monolithic group. They have been shaped by their political and cultural environments, and appear across the political spectrum. Over time, they have learned to use religious exemptions to sidestep vaccination, despite the fact that no major religion forbids vaccination, and that vaccine resisters often leverage religious exemptions to gain moral authority for what are often political or conspiracy-based views. To reach this group, vaccine advocates have to better understand how religious exemptions have been politicized, and how they can be limited in order to protect public health.
Vaccine requirements are as old as the nation itself — in fact, they arguably made the United States possible, since George Washington relied on them during the Revolutionary War to keep the Continental Army healthy in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. When Virginia enacted restrictions on vaccinations, a frustrated Washington insisted in a 1777 letter to his brother, “I would rather move for a Law to compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties.”
Soldiers would continue to receive vaccinations through to the present day. Those not in the military tended to encounter vaccine requirements at the local level when their town or city enacted mandates, often in response to epidemics. These mandates did not come from the federal government, though the federal government has continuously worked to support vaccination. The Supreme Court, for instance, clarified the legitimacy of these requirements in the early 20th century, ruling in 1905 that states could levy fines and penalties against those who refused to get required vaccines. (Note that this is different from forced vaccination, because those who refused were fined, not forced to get the vaccine.) The court later ruled that public schools could require vaccines as a condition of enrollment.
Given the expansion of both compulsory education and mass military conscription in the first half of the 20th century, vaccination became a routine part of life for millions of Americans. Vaccine mandates surged during the polio epidemic in the 1950s, effectively halting the spread of the devastating disease. Childhood vaccinations became part of standard pediatric care, and vaccine mandates have become a normal, even unremarkable, part of life in the US.
This is not to say there isn’t also a history of opposition to those requirements, one that is just as long as the history of vaccine mandates themselves. That opposition became especially visible in the late 19th century. The Anti-Vaccination Society of America, founded in 1879, led campaigns against state vaccine laws, causing some states to prohibit vaccine mandates (another phenomenon not unique to our time).
It was also in this period that vaccine exemptions for religious or personal beliefs became more common. Anti-vaccine activists were partially responsible for that shift, lobbying for exemptions after the Supreme Court ruled that vaccine mandates were constitutional. Another wave of anti-vaccination lobbying followed the introduction of the polio vaccine, when those opposed to compulsory vaccination fought for carve-outs to the new mandates, successfully inserting exemptions in vaccine laws in states like Michigan and Ohio.
The same pattern emerged in the 1960s and 1970s after the development of a measles vaccine. Resistance came from across the political spectrum, though left-wing resisters often preferred the language of personal belief rather than religion.
In recent years, before the Covid-19 pandemic, these forces came to a head again, as a growing anti-vaccination movement led to the reemergence of diseases like measles. That in turn led some states to repeal their religious or personal belief exemptions. In New York, for instance, following a record-breaking measles outbreak in 2019 centered in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, the state legislature repealed its religious exemption for vaccinations.
With standards about mandates, exemptions and public health already in flux before the Covid-19 pandemic and a Republican president downplaying the severity of the pandemic as it grew worse in 2020, it is in retrospect not surprising that mitigation measures quickly became objects of partisan derision and opposition. And while for a moment it seemed possible that the vaccine might escape that political vortex, as then-President Trump crowed about the “miracle” vaccine produced during his administration, that window of opportunity slammed shut as the new Democratic administration began and Trump’s statements about vaccination grew more partisan.
That religious exemptions are emerging as a resistance strategy on the right is also not surprising. Over the past few decades, the right has increasingly funneled policy resistance through the framework of religious exemptions: opposition to marriage equality, to trans rights, to reproductive health care under the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court broadened the scope of religious exemptions available to for-profit companies in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014, ruling that the craft store chain had a sincerely held religious belief that would be unduly burdened by offering contraceptive coverage as part of its employee health insurance benefits. That victory underscored for conservatives that religious exemptions could be a powerful way to undercut policies they opposed.
It is little wonder then that some right-wing vaccine resisters would now turn to religious exemption as a way around vaccine mandates, even though the Supreme Court has previously ruled that religious belief does not automatically exempt people from following laws like vaccine requirements. The effort is in part aimed at getting the court to rethink its stance on the balance between public health and religious belief (something the Supreme Court, which earlier this year overturned New York’s pandemic restrictions on indoor religious ceremonies, has shown that it is open to doing).
But it also is part of a much broader effort to, in the short term, scotch the Biden administration’s attempts to bring the pandemic under control and, in the long term, make religious exemptions a primary, powerful tool for undermining as many liberal policies as possible.