As of Sept. 8, 2021, the University of Michigan has approved 662 vaccine exemptions, most of which are on the basis of religion. Although these exemptions represent only about 2% of the student body — on that same day, 93% of students had reported complete COVID-19 vaccination status — they nonetheless threaten the health and safety of the entire student body. The University’s policy on religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine is too lenient, inconsistent with most religious guidance and does not align with its stated mission of protecting the U-M community from COVID-19.
Although the University only granted exemptions to a small percentage of students, this decision has the potential to negatively impact the health of the entire University community. Reaching complete herd immunity is not currently realistic due to the emergence of highly transmissible variants and the fact that fully vaccinated people can still transmit COVID-19.
As a result, it is important for as many people as possible to get vaccinated in order to protect populations who cannot get vaccinated, such as children and immunocompromised people. In fact, unvaccinated students also put vaccinated students at higher risk of breakthrough infections. Religious exemptions allow students to remain unvaccinated, a decision that directly endangers the health of the student body and the larger Ann Arbor community.
The root of this problem is that the University’s exemption policy is too lenient in granting religious exemptions. Saying that “our hope is that exemptions are minimal” — as the University did when it first introduced the vaccine requirement — is not reasonable because the institution itself determines who is approved. “Hope” is not going to keep students safe. The University could choose to make religious exemptions minimal, but 662 people are not minimal.
Further, while the University grants two types of exemptions, the standards for these exemptions are not the same. In order to receive a medical exemption, a student needs to provide documentation from a health care professional explaining why it is unsafe for them to receive the vaccine. However, obtaining a religious exemption does not require any documentation and asks only for a statement explaining how an individual’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” prevent them from getting the vaccine. Documentation from a religious official is optional. This is an unnecessary inconsistency, and the standards should not be lower for religious exemptions. If religious exemptions are to be allowed, they should require documentation such as a history of religious exemptions for other vaccines or documentation from a religious official.
Additionally, there are no major religions that outright oppose vaccination. In fact, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders have encouraged vaccination. The Pope claimed that receiving the vaccine is a moral decision because it protects others. Some religions do not specifically encourage vaccination but also do not oppose it. Christian Science, a religion that normally favors prayer over medicine for healing, encourages cooperation with public health measures and does not prohibit vaccination for their members. If vaccination is not prohibited by any major religions, then exemptions for any student under these faiths are being granted on the basis of personal beliefs, not religious ones.
On a practical level, the shortcomings of this policy are apparent. Although unvaccinated students must get tested once per week, this approach is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect other students. Despite the University’s high vaccination rate, quarantine and isolation housing as of Sept. 21 is over 13% of capacity, indicating there is a significant level of ongoing transmission among students. That said, the University should mandate vaccination for as many students as possible. The best way to do that is by either eliminating non-medical exemptions or tightening the standards for religious exemptions.
If the University is committed to granting religious exemptions, those exemptions should be accompanied by more stringent public health measures. We are able to be back on campus this semester because of vaccines. If someone is unwilling to receive the vaccine based on personal beliefs, then they should not be allowed to live in residence halls or take in-person classes. According to Robert Ernst, associate vice president of Student Life and director of Campus COVID Response, “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is a requirement to live, learn and work at the University of Michigan.” However, is it really a requirement when individuals can easily obtain an exemption based on their personal beliefs?
It is immoral for the University of Michigan to allow students’ personal choices to endanger the health and safety of others on campus. Major medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have advocated banning all non-medical exemptions because they are unethical and threaten public health. Further, California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia have eliminated non-medical exemptions.
In fact, in 1979, the Mississippi Supreme Court deemed religious exemptions unconstitutional because they threaten public health. As a result, Mississippi has a 99.7% childhood vaccination rate, which is the highest in the country. In addition, in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that states have the power to mandate vaccination, and the only allowed exemption in the case is for medical reasons.
Granting religious exemptions is an unsafe and unethical choice. If the University wants to truly follow through on its goal of creating a safe and healthy learning environment, it should develop an exemption policy that prioritizes public health over the personal beliefs of individuals.
Samantha Ratner is a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.