Is It OK to Claim a Religious Exemption to the Covid Vaccine?

My daughter, a toddler, started day care this fall. We were told that her new assistant teacher was not vaccinated. This person was supposedly “considering” vaccination but also claimed to have religious reasons for refusing it. However, those she chose to work with are especially vulnerable: They cannot wear masks, cannot currently be vaccinated and are still forming their immune systems. When we pressed the owner of the school, she said she could not find qualified vaccinated individuals to take the job. We see vaccination as a public duty, not a personal choice, especially when working with vulnerable populations. I don’t consider even a religious exemption to be ethical. Is there another way to look at it? Kalie Z.

In a democracy with a great diversity of faiths, we should do our best to accommodate the seriously held religious beliefs of our fellow citizens. This is, in part, the counsel of prudence. Religious difference can tear societies apart; accommodating difference can help people live in harmony. Nor should the state heedlessly trespass on personal autonomy, including people’s projects and commitments, which often are religious in nature. Now for a few critical caveats.

Free-exercise claims may be denied when they clash with other exigent considerations, including other forms of liberty. Even when exemptions are granted, they may come with consequences. For public-health reasons, we may decide we must limit the freedom of vaccine-exempted people to do things like eat at restaurants or participate unmasked in indoor events, perhaps even to hold specific jobs. People who say that they should be exempt without cost are refusing to take their responsibility to the rest of us seriously: They can hardly expect us to burden ourselves for their sakes if they aren’t inclined to reciprocate. We also have reason to doubt the weight of their religious commitments, given that such commitments typically entail accepting the reasonable burdens of living up to them.

And this matters because people who demand religious exemption are not exempt from having the sincerity of their demands scrutinized. The military has, for generations, made inquiries into how conscientious a conscientious objection really is; immigration officials may make similar inquiries into a green-card-conferring marriage. Vaccination saves enormous numbers of lives. It’s fair to ask those requesting exemptions to give a meaningful explanation of why receiving the vaccine contravenes their creed; it’s fair to inquire if they are consistent in applying the pertinent tenets.

It matters, too, whether religious claims against the state or an employer are backed by a community of faith. (No major religious group has asked members to abstain from vaccination, though individual congregations may go their own way.) That’s relevant in two respects. First, we have some reason to try to accommodate a community of faith precisely because it is a community; and second, such membership increases our confidence that the profession is sincere. When conscientious objectors are asked to establish their bona fides, the fact that they belong to a tradition with pacifist commitments — such as Quakerism — may be taken as a useful proxy.

Our assessments of faith-based claims will be imperfect, no doubt. But allowing people to assert a religious exemption with no questions asked is an obvious invitation to abuse. Some people seem to think that merely uttering the words “religious exemption” obliges us to let them do whatever they want. That way chaos lies.

A final point about your specific case: The direct risks Covid poses to children remain extremely small. Toddlers represent a minuscule fraction of severe Covid cases. But they can spread infection to others whose risks are higher. I hope this day-care employee’s considerations take into account all the people her decision may affect.

Several family members who were not eligible for Covid booster vaccines under C.D.C. guidelines this fall said they were immunocompromised in order to obtain a booster. At least one was a wink-wink situation — the pharmacist knew the truth. I am torn about the morality of this. I am very uncomfortable with lying. But the restrictions on who qualified for a booster were immoral. The boosters were effective, and surplus doses were being thrown away. In my view, the restrictions increased the risk to one group (those who want a booster but weren’t allowed to have one) without increasing the benefit to another. Lying in order to circumvent that system could be seen as an act of civil disobedience, couldn’t it? Lucy B.

Not by my lights. Standard theories of civil disobedience tend to focus on cases in which people break the law publicly in order to draw attention to an injustice. And a defective policy isn’t necessarily an unjust one. That a queue could have been better designed doesn’t, by itself, give you permission to cut it. Getting a jab under false pretenses, even with the knowing cooperation of the pharmacist, hardly amounts to an act of protest. Rosa Parks didn’t try to pass for white so she could sit in the front of the bus.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

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The Omicron variant. The latest variant was identified on Nov. 25 by scientists in South Africa, though Dutch officials later said two cases were detected in the Netherlands days earlier. As experts race to learn more, it’s still unclear if the variant leads to severe illness and how effective vaccines will be against it.

Travel restrictions and lockdowns. As more Omicron cases emerge globally, countries are responding in varied ways. Japan joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks. Here’s a list of where U.S. citizens can travel right now.

What officials are saying. President Biden sought to reassure the U.S. on Monday, telling Americans that the variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” W.H.O. officials warned that the global risk posed by Omicron was “very high”, and the C.D.C said all adults “should” get booster shots.

Economic impact. After a solid rally on Monday, global markets were sliding again on Tuesday amid new concerns over the ability of current vaccines to control the variant. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, will tell lawmakers on Tuesday that Omicron creates more inflation uncertainty.

My young nephew has been undergoing treatment for cancer. He is severely immunocompromised. His parents are apparent Covid deniers and have repeatedly exposed the child to crowds. They posted photos to Facebook of him being held by nonfamily members, just days after he was released from the hospital. Nobody in the photos (which have dozens of people in them) is wearing a mask. There have been two events for this child: each was held outside, but each involved a lot of close contact. Nobody in the extended family dares say anything because his family will just explode in anger. But as a former medical worker, I find it deeply upsetting to remain silent. (The child almost died recently from a mild infection.) I would like to report the family to the child’s oncologist. Would this be unethical of me? I know these parents love their child, but if they will not listen to me, they might listen to his doctor. What do you think? Name Withheld

You say these parents will explode in anger if you mention the issue? Oh, dear. They may be among those people whose aberrant views about Covid have become a measure of their commitment to an identity. People in that frame of mind are quite willing to do things that put their lives — and those of their children — on the line. So I’m not terribly hopeful that they’ll shift course on a doctor’s advice. In fact, I’d be surprised if their oncologist hasn’t already explained to them that their child needs protecting from immunological challenges.

But you should certainly feel free to tell the doctor, who can make sure to reinforce the medical considerations here. The behavior you’re describing isn’t something you were told in confidence; it’s visible on Facebook. Your nephew’s parents regard these ill-advised interactions with pride, not with shame — alas.

My employer is a small, disorganized nonprofit. Recently, I received two direct deposits in one pay period, one right after the other. One was my regular paycheck amount, and the second was about $100 more. I was essentially paid twice. It’s likely to be a mistake, even though last year a “bonus” appeared in my account without warning. I don’t want to be ungrateful, but my boss is a terrible manager, and my bitterness about other things makes me feel that it’s not my problem if they can’t get paychecks right and that I should just keep the money. Can I do so and leave my integrity intact? Name Withheld

I’m afraid not. Alert your employer and find out whether the extra deposit was intentional or not. Too many organizations could more aptly be termed dis-organizations, and lofty aims are no excuse for slipshod execution. But taking advantage of those circumstances isn’t helpful. Managers don’t improve when slip-ups aren’t called to their attention.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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