Op-Ed: Why I Supported Ending Religious Exemptions To Vaccinations

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(By Joel Petlin)

Last week, in a highly charged and controversial vote, the New York State Legislature narrowly passed a Bill to ban the use of religious exemptions for the vaccinations that are required of all school-age students. Within hours of passage, Governor Cuomo signed the law into immediate effect. I supported that action, not only as a public school administrator, responsible for the health and welfare of hundreds of special needs students, but also as a father and Yeshiva parent in Monsey, NY.

While others have taken up battle lines drawn between the public health needs of a community and the religious rights of families, I am coming from a different perspective. In my opinion, only by banning religious exemptions could the Yeshivas actually be free to implement their rules and protect the health of immuno-suppressed students and others who are medically exempt from vaccinations. Permit me to explain.

For many years, New York State has given deference to parents who have challenged schools by asserting their entitlement to an exemption from immunizations “based upon a sincerely held religious belief.” In fact, this standard has been repeatedly upheld by Commissioners of Education for decades, despite the protestations of both private and public schools. This was especially troubling because many schools have argued that parents often couch their objections in “religious language” when in fact their objections to vaccines is based solely on philosophical, scientific or medical reasons.

[Hagaon HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky Condemns Anti-Vaxxers Who Made Colossal Chillul Hashem In Albany Last Week]

In 2008 and again in early 2019, Yeshiva of Spring Valley in Monsey, NY was forced by the NY State Education Commissioner to accept non-vaccinated students based on a parents interpretation of Biblical verses in Beraishis, Vayikra and Yermiyahu. This was despite the Yeshiva’s argument that there is no basis in Jewish law or tradition for non-vaccination. In fact the Yeshiva argued that “it is well accepted in Jewish law and tradition that the biblical obligation to guard one’s health includes taking necessary preventive measures such as immunization.” Nevertheless, the Commissioner ruled for the parents and their personal “religious” beliefs.

The same result occurred in 2017 for the Shefa School in Manhattan, where the parent of a non-vaccinated student argued that “it’s well within the Talmudic tradition to question generally accepted secular practices in society in the context of Jewish law and tradition.” She too cited Biblical verses, argued against the “non-kosher ingredients” in vaccines and even posited that the man-made vaccine offends her “sacred relationship with G-d” and “makes a mockery of their faith.” Over the objection of the private Jewish school, the Commissioner ruled for the mother, “based upon her interpretation of the Torah.”

[YWN Editorial: Anti Vaxxers Aren’t The Only Ones Who Lost Today‎]

This issue even got the attention of the NY Post earlier this month under the screaming headline “State Education Department Ordered Jewish School to Accept Unvaccinated Kids.” That case stems from a ruling in January against the Shulamith School in Cedarhurst that tried to exclude two nonvaxxed sisters from their program. The school’s attorney told the Post that it was their belief that students should be vaccinated “under the school’s religious belief, as a matter of Jewish law.” That case in now pending in Federal court.

The common theme is these cases is that under the prior law, these private Jewish schools could not establish their own admission standards and couldn’t even rely on their own Rabbinic authorities to determine their school policies. The individual “religious” viewpoint of a parent or an outside “Rabbi” carried more weight than the leadership of the Yeshiva because a secular authority was in essence, put in the position of deciding issues of religion, that should’ve been left up to a Vaad HaChinuch.

[Op-Ed: Unprecedented Chillul Hashem By Orthodox Jewish Anti-Vaxxers In Albany]

Private religious school’s cater to families which support their ideology and want their children educated in their particular religious traditions. For the government to interfere in that process, by supporting a personal preference disguised as a “religious right” is very wrong and it undermines Yeshivas, in this case by literally putting other students at risk.

I am mindful of the slippery slope caused by the banning of the religious exemption in NY and its implications for actual religious rights. On this issue, however, the removal of the religious exemption actually had the opposite effect. Yeshivas in New York can now, for the first time, follow their Rabbinic guidance and exclude students who pose a health risk to the larger student body.

There is no legitimate Jewish religious objection to vaccines in 2019. It is unfortunate that it took a public health scare and an act of the NY State Legislature to help the Yeshivas, and our community, deal with this crisis.

Joel Petlin is the Superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District in Orange County, NY.

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Silly conclusion.

    If the issue is that yeshivas were forced to accept non-vaccinated children, then change the law so that private schools can make their own rules regarding vaccinations instead of removing the entire exemption.

    This could have been a perfect opportunity to reinforce the idea of private school, and that like-minded parents to be able to govern the school in a manner they see fit.

    Constitutionally and for those interested in preserving the autonomy of yeshiva and private schools, this would have been a better solution.

    It is a slippery slope, and it was lost for nothing.

  2. This was “controversial”???? There are only a small cults that oppose vaccination on religious grounds (no Jewish ones, so odd ball Christian ones). There are persons of all religions skeptical of at least some vaccinations, but their objections are medical not theological.

  3. It is indeed a very very slippery slope. Where do we draw the line for religious freedom? Our community faced challenges a few years ago against metitza bpe. There too it was a public health issue. Every year Peta fights aginst Kaporos and now in NYC they have their eyes on fur and strimals. They can say they are protecting animal rights. It can be school choice, euthanasia, abortion, g rights, and hundreds of other issues that our community has concerns about. All these issues can be major headaches for us if we take away religious freedom. On the other hand what can stop any group of people from picking a cause and say they are free to do it because of religious freedom?

  4. While i agree that this allows the schools to disallow non-vaccinated students, the conclusion is dangerously narrow sighted. To give the state the power to end (any) form of religious exemption is to open the pathway for the ending of other exemptions. Once empowered in this field, the state, or other states for that matter, will no longer think twice about fighting against a religious claim. Even someone who is religiously pro-vaccines should be afraid of this event.

  5. Others have correctly noted that aside from a few misguided rabbonim and askanim, there are NO widely respected leaders who affirmatively support the anti-vax movement. In this case, the State is entirely correct to mandate vaccination for ALL students. While I don’t support State intrusion into curriculum standards for private school, a functionally illiterate yeshiva bochur is a risk to himself and his family whereas an unvaccinated child is a public health threat to all. I’m not worried about the silly “slippery slope” argument.

  6. There was no need to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccination, as the New York vaccination rate is currently 97%. However, pharmaceutical and insurance companies lobbied hard for A. 2731 and politicians with zero knowledge about the dangers of vaccines voted in their favor. According to Crain’s New York Business, “The Partnership for New York City,” which represents more than 350 major city employers, wrote a letter to legislators calling for an end to religious exemptions to vaccinations. Among the business group’s members and partners are Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Anthem Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and many more who benefit from forced vaccination.