Childhood Vaccines and the Murky Waters of Religious Freedom

January 8, 2016 09:00 AM

America is fast becoming a nation where religious freedom rights are challenged and at times denied. Such is the case involving parents of children who do not want to have their children vaccinated. These parents not only have grave concerns about the welfare of their children, but sound arguments for protecting them from vaccination.

In Florida, the religious exemption provided for in Statute 1003.22 protected the rights of such parents in both private and Catholic schools. That is until recently.

In 2011, Robert N. Lynch, bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg,

issued a letter​ to all pastors and principals stating that the Catholic schools of that diocese would no longer honor religious exemptions for vaccine refusal for its students. In 2014, a similar letter went out to all parents from the principal of St. Paul’s Catholic School in the Diocese of St. Augustine. The letter says, in part, “Out of concern for the welfare of all in our Catholic school community, Bishop Estevez and the bishops of the Province of Florida reviewed the current immunization policy and endorsed a change effective the 2015–16 academic year. Students will need to show proof of immunization to enroll in diocesan Catholic schools.”

Today as I write, one parent is taking action against this new policy. Two of his children graduated from Catholic schools in that diocese and used the religious exemption without a problem. But now his youngest is being prohibited from entering first grade because the child has not been vaccinated and religious exemptions are no longer honored. As a result, this parent filed a lawsuit to preserve the religious exemption. It states in part: “Most Catholic bishops in Florida are overreaching their authority and violating the freedom and sacred conscience of the Catholic family with their new policy of rejecting vaccination religious exemptions lawfully claimed for children by their parents in diocesan schools.”

This is not a one-time only problem. According to my sources it is actually a growing problem. Yet it shouldn’t be. The reasons that the USCCB itself published a statement on this subject entitled “Conscience Exemption for Vaccines Based on Fetal Tissue from Abortions” make it clear that the bishops recognize the problem that Catholic parents face.

In a statement that references the position paper on the topic prepared by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005, the United States bishops write that the final decision on whether or not to permit the acknowledgement of religious exemptions must be handled on a case by case basis. This is not much help in those like the one in St. Augustine, as it provides loopholes for bishops who want to act as they have in Florida.

On the other hand, the Vatican is not so politically cautious in its statements. In one 2009 document on Catholic education, the Vatican states clearly that parental rights must be respected and the right to religious freedom protected.

The bottom line is that, for Catholic parents at least, Church teaching on the right to refuse such vaccines is indisputable. Parents have the right to abstain from having their children vaccinated. All these parents need is the unqualified support of Catholic bishops to uphold the legality of religious exemptions and to strive tirelessly to protect the conscience rights of their people. The bishops have already exhibited their courage in this matter on other topics including the Obama contraceptive/chemical abortion mandate and same-sex marriage. Yet, on the subject of religious freedom of conscience for parents who do not want their children vaccinated because childhood vaccines contain aborted baby bodily tissue, the Church is eerily at odds with itself in some cases.

Religious freedom and the right of a parent to act in accord with a properly formed conscience should be as much of a concern to all Catholic bishops in the case of childhood vaccines as it is in the case of same-sex marriage or mandatory abortion-causing contraceptives. In each case, religious freedom should be cherished, not diminished.

It is our sincere hope that the bishops as a whole—and Florida bishops in particular—will step back and see the contradiction that has occurred on the subject or parental rights and childhood vaccines. It is never too late to unite and declare, as the Church has in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’”


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