In February, two OU freshmen were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. In brief, meningitis refers to an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. Left untreated, bacterial meningitis is almost always fatal.
In other words, it’s nothing to kid around about.
As it turns out, both students had been vaccinated for meningitis—but that vaccine covers only four of the five main strains of the disease. Though they are a startlingly effective preemptive measure, most vaccines cannot promise 100% immunity.
I bring this up nearly three months later in light of a new development. As reported by the Post last Thursday, three Ohio state senators have introduced a bill that would require all students to receive a vaccine for bacterial meningitis and hepatitis B if living on campus at any college or university in Ohio. I applaud the efforts of these senators to ensure the health and safety of Ohio students—that’s us—but a particular detail of the report caught my eye. Perhaps unsurprising, a stipulation of the bill is that students should be able to waive the requirement on grounds of religious exception.
I will note here that the article also reports that students should be able to forgo vaccination on grounds of risks to their personal health. The safety of vaccination is a can of worms that I’m not particularly interested in discussing in this post, but I will state first and unequivocally that these sorts of appeals bear little weight in my mind. Vaccines are safe and effective. And any portion of the population which remains unvaccinated is a risk to public health. Period.
That’s that. But for students to resist vaccination and consequently become a risk to the health of innocent bystanders—and I want to make it clear that the following thoughts are directed specifically to students in dorm, as they will be the ones affected by this pending legislation—on grounds of religious conviction? For me at least, this is where things get interesting.
The Rules of Exemption
How exactly is religious exemption defined? According to Florida “vaccine awareness group K.N.O.W., “religious exemption is for anyone who has a sincere religious conflict with vaccination.” I’m particularly amused by the idea that exemption might only be granted on the basis of “sincere” religious conflict. I’ve yet to come across any litmus test or gold standard for religious sincerity. The wording is especially interesting to me because the K.N.O.W. FAQ also states that no agent may have the authority to request proof of the dissenter’s religious belief, nor are they able inquire about or discriminate between religious denominations.
In other words, you’re “sincerely religious” if you say you are. And why not? I have no problems there. I certainly don’t doubt the religious sincerity of many of my friends and family members. What I am troubled by is this: by these rules, it follows naturally that you can, as a dorm-dwelling student, forgo vaccination if you feel like it— and that’s all the reason you need.
Equally interesting is the group’s attempt to list the reasons that constitute a religious conflict, which reads as follows:
All vaccines are made in violation of God's Word. Vaccines are made with toxic chemicals that are injected into the bloodstream by vaccination. All vaccines are made with foreign proteins (viruses and bacteria), and some vaccines are made with genetically engineered viral and bacterial materials.
A conflict arises if you believe that man is made in God's image and the injection of toxic chemicals and foreign proteins into the bloodstream is a violation of God's directive to keep the body/temple holy and free from impurities.
A conflict arises if you accept God's warning not to mix the blood of man with the blood of animals. Many vaccines are produced in animal tissues.
A conflict arises if your religious convictions are predicated on the belief that all life is sacred. God's commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill" applies to the practice of abortion. When you believe that the practice of abortion should not be encouraged or supported in any way, a conflict arises with the use of vaccines produced in aborted fetal tissue even though you did not have any other connection with the abortions from which the vaccines are derived.
While I find these particular appeals mundane, it is interesting at least that they might try to distill a finite set of religious incompatibilities, and with an obvious bias toward the dogma of conventional fundamentalist Christianity. It almost seems that, for a moment, they’ve forgot their self-imposed rule—that they remain open to any and all convictions and creeds. Where are the rules to protect dissenting Pastafarians?
The Dangers of Exemption
All of that is interesting, but I’ve yet to get to the real heart of my concern. This new law in the Ohio senate was proposed for a reason—the measures therein are important, maybe even vital, to ensuring the future health and safety of students. Disease is dangerous. Disease kills.
Let me repeat that. Disease kills.
If you are not vaccinated, you’ve been negligent in regards to your own health. But worse-- because even those who have been vaccinated are still susceptible, you’ve become a danger to everyone around you. You are a risk to public health.
Most people reading have probably lived in a dorm at some point or another, and could attest to their relative filthiness. When you’ve got this many 18 year-olds living together in such close proximity, and sharing so much of their living space, what else could you expect? In dorms, kids get sick—and the sickness spreads.
Here’s the crux of the problem: Admission into a public university is a privilege, not a right. If you cannot adhere to the basic health standards of that university, for any reason, you do not deserve a free pass. If you cannot attend a university--and especially be admitted to live in its dormitories--because you refuse vaccination, how unfortunate for you. And if you’re really smart? How unfortunate for academia.
But how fortunate for everybody else.
This isn’t a matter of respect or tolerance or sensitivity. These things are all important—incredibly important—but their significance drops proportionately in the face of such a serious health risks.
Consider for a moment that the courts have successfully outlawed cigarette smoking in all public buildings in Ohio. While I support those laws for personal reasons, let’s be frank—the primary health concerns that sparked that legislation is dubious at best. Living with a smoker may be a danger to your health. Eating dinner next to one is simply unpleasant.
So I wonder why we aren’t able to seek religious exception to that law? “Pardon me sir, but I really must light up—it’s my religion, you see.”
I think a compelling parallel could be drawn here to the student who is admitted into a university dorm and chooses not to be vaccinated—and in this case the health concerns are very real.