Brothers and sisters, can we talk? I am struggling with the notion that religion would have you avoid getting vaccinated during a pandemic. By my reading, most religions urge adherents to care about other people, and one way to look out for your neighbors was and is getting vaccinated. That’s not just me talking. Pope Francis called getting vaccinated a “moral obligation.” Orthodox rabbis from New York (representing a community hard hit by COVID) created a PSA that encouraged people get the vaccine. Multiple other faith leaders have made a point of encouraging their flock to get the shot.
The message seems pretty clear, but anti-vax ideology that purports to spring from religious faith comes from the worst kind of individualism that leaves the rest of us susceptible to a pandemic that won’t end, but instead will retreat, regroup, and then come roaring back.
Connecticut has no shortage of organizations that serve up this toxic mix of faux freedom and faith. CTRAMM, or Connecticut Residents Against Medical Mandates, offers information on its website for people who want to exercise their sincerely-held beliefs by applying for a religious exemption from vaccinations, though the information is password-protected, and the process is not as seamless as it once was.
In April 2021, when the state had seen nearly 8,100 COVID-related deaths, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill that eliminated religious exemptions from school vaccinations. Other states had already banned the exemption, and with that signature, the governor moved firmly onto the list of CTRAMM’s least-appreciated politicians.
Students already enrolled in schools or daycares could still employ their right to spread viruses and infections.
Members of Connecticut’s – well I wouldn’t call it “healthy,” but you get my point – anti-vax movement loudly protested the bill, and they’ve challenged it in court. One of the most recent anti-vax lawsuits involves two families with small children in Orange and Greenwich. The suit leans heavily on Roman Catholic doctrine that urges the faithful to avoid medicine made from aborted fetal cells, though the COVID vaccine does not contain such cells. Instead, some vaccines carry cell lines from abortions conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Richard K. Zimmerman, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research.
Is now a good place to mention that in addition to a moral obligation, Pope Francis called getting vaccinated an “act of love?” Or that the church’s Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith said the “morality” of getting vaccinated rested most heavily on “the duty to pursue the common good,” “especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”
I do not propose to tell Catholics how to be good Catholics, and good people can disagree about theology, but what do you do say to this tragically broad interpretation of religious freedom?
Protests have dogged vaccines from the beginning. Religious exemptions, however, mostly date back just to the 1960s. What was once a relatively small group in the state is booming with new-found money from some sources you should learn to recognize. Recently, Connecticut’s anti-vaxxers put out word that the Children’s Health Defense is matching donations (up to $40,000) that will help fund the latest exemption lawsuit. Children’s Health Defense has made millions casting doubt on the effectiveness of COVID (and other) vaccines.
Since 2018, the CHD has been led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – one of Bobby’s sons – who started public life as an environmental lawyer. But about 15 years ago, Kennedy began pushing false information about vaccinations, much to the chagrin of the rest of his family. His organization has been banned from Facebook and Instagram for sharing vaccination misinformation. According to Charity Navigator, in 2019 the organization devoted 46% of its budget to litigation, or, from the nonprofit evaluator, the organization “files civil and criminal legal actions in federal and state court to force transparency, scientific integrity, and policy change within industry and government regulatory agencies.”
The mid-term election will require voters to dedicate themselves to vetting the nonsense coming their way. For what it’s worth, Leora Levy, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senator, recently touted on Twitter that she’d received the endorsement of CTRAMM’s founder and president. In another time or place, that would not be the thing to trumpet, but there you are.
Fact-checking takes time, but during these mid-terms, you can shrink the process by asking your candidate two questions: 1) Who won the 2020 presidential election, and 2) Who should be vaccinated? Then vote accordingly.