A. Ron Galbraith has alerted me to the news that Bible mom doesn’t want to vaccinate her child, because Bible, but a federal judge in Brooklyn has denied her request for an injunction. For the purposes of this discussion, we will pretend that the New York Post is a reputable source of news and that Staten Island is part of the city. In February, Dina Check sued the NYC Department of Education on the grounds that she had unfairly been denied a religious exemption to let her daughter,
A’ishah Mary, attend PS 35 without her shots. Her reason, which is maybe two reasons, reveals a fundamental problem with religious objections to law.
Check is a devout Catholic, and she says that to vaccinate her child would show “a lack of faith in God and His way.” God demands from you an essential passivity. If you fall down, don’t stand up; sit tight and wait for God to lift you as He sees fit. But I digress—the point is that Check believes it would be wrong to inoculate her daughter against measles and whatnot, because it would imply that her faith in God’s benevolent plan is less than absolute.
That’s what she says, anyway. Last summer, she also submitted a medical exemption for young Mary, citing gastrointestinal problems. Check insists that she always intended to apply for a religious exemption, and that the (denied) medical-exemption application was a mistake. Judge Sandra Townes, however, cited the first attempt to gain medical exemption as indicative that Check’s objections to vaccination were not grounded in her faith:
This court has no doubt that [Check] is a deeply religious woman whose religion plays an important, and even central, role in her life. However, not every belief held by a religious person is a religious belief.
And therein lies the problem. Vaccination paranoia is a prominent position among crazy people in the last few years, probably due to an increase in crazy positions generally. Yet we only grant exemptions from vaccination rules to people whose crazy position is grounded in religious belief, not to people who heard Angelina Jolie say it gives you autism or whatever. That distinction between religious ideas and all other ideas is a weird policy, for both practical and philosophical reasons.
As the Check case suggests, it’s practically very difficult to say which opinions a person holds because of her religion and which she holds for other reasons—especially when those opinions are weird. The majority of Catholics do not consider it sacrilege to vaccinate their children. Is Dina Check more religious than they are, or is she merely couching her objections in a religious excuse? That’s the kind of question a court cannot reliably answer, maybe because the distinction is functionally meaningless.
This brings us to the philosophical problem. Vaccination laws exist to prevent outbreaks of infectious disease. We consider our interest in protecting ourselves from such epidemics greater than our interest in letting every parent have her own way, so we make vaccination a condition of entry for public schools. The idea is that people are entitled to act on their own understanding, but not when that understanding is flawed in a way that endangers others.
Unless their understanding is flawed by religion—then laws enforcing the common good do not apply. In so doing, we privilege one kind of reasoning over all others.
Let’s say that I spend all my time reading scary blogs about terrorism, and I determine that there is going to be an attack on the Museum of Natural History in October. I therefore forbid my daughter from going on a field trip there, because my interpretation of world news has convinced me that she will die a grisly death. If I explained my reasons to the local school board, they would dismiss them as crazy. Yet if I tell the same school board that I’m keeping my daughter home because I believe she will go to hell if she learns too much about evolution, my decision is respected without question.
As theories go, the idea that people remain sentient after they die and go to either very good or very bad places depending on their beliefs is no more grounded in evidence than my museum-attack hypothesis. Both would be equally difficult to argue to an impartial arbiter. Yet we have agreed not so much that the religious explanation is correct, but that we will treat all religious explanations as correct regardless of how intellectually bankrupt they are.
That’s a bad idea, both for avoiding the measles and for our epistemological ethics. A wrong belief is not made somehow less damaging by reference to the Bible. Dina Check’s faith in God will not keep kids from getting polio. As a society, we have known since Jonas Salk that vaccines are a better way to protect public health than prayer. We are willing to ignore that danger and issue exemptions to the law, but only when we have been prompted to do so by religious reasons. In so doing, we privilege religion in public life in a way that is fundamentally un-American. It doesn’t make it better that we are not privileging any particular one.