Editorial: Render unto Caesar

In January 2018, in the midst of a severe flu season, the Catholic Diocese of Maine instituted protocols to impede the spread.

Parishioners with flu symptoms were asked to stay home. For them, the Sunday Mass obligation was lifted. The communion ritual was changed to reduce touching. Shaking hands during the Sign of Peace interval was put on hold.

These and other sensible precautions were temporarily instituted because the bishop recognized that a stricken individual could pose a health threat to large church gatherings. The protocols demonstrated that an institution dedicated to the spirit recognized its responsibility for the health of the body.

Which brings to mind the religious exemption for those who do not want their children vaccinated.

A little history:

The Maine Senate initially voted 20-15 to approve a bill ending both philosophical and religious exemptions to vaccinations against measles, mumps, whooping cough and other contagious illnesses. The initiative came in the face of the outbreak and spread of diseases, measles among them, that had been all but eradicated.

Thus, the bill would require almost all children be vaccinated in order to attend schools.

The measure was approved in the House but a subsequent Senate vote, while eliminating the philosophical exemption, preserved the religious exemption. Four Democrats, including Hancock County Sen. Louie Luchini, joined 14 Republicans to change the scope of the bill in order to preserve religious exemptions for parents who claim “a sincere religious belief that is contrary to the immunization requirement.”

Luchini is emphatic about his belief that “vaccines are critical to public health.”

“My vote was largely based on the numbers,” he stated in an email. Those numbers, he wrote, show “the vast majority of exemptions are for philosophical reasons.”

  1. So what’s to keep philosophical objectors from wrapping themselves in “a sincere religious belief that is contrary to the immunization requirement”?

And which religion are we talking about?

A Portland Press Herald reporter found that organized religions across the board encourage their congregations to be immunized against contagious diseases such as measles, whooping cough and chicken pox.

And how does one prove a belief is sincerely held? What could be less palpable, less measurable than the beliefs held in one’s heart? And if there is no way to prove that one’s religious claims are sincere, how do health authorities screen for insincerity?

“If people shift from philosophical to religious exemptions,” Luchini wrote, “I’d certainly revisit that vote.”

Good luck with that.

Maine, in general, and Hancock County, in particular, has high numbers of unvaccinated children in the schools. These children are at risk themselves and they put at risk other children, individuals with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, infants and people with cancer.

Freedom of religion cannot be allowed to thwart sound public policy. Jesus recognized that even the faithful have a responsibility, in some instances, to submit to earthly authority when he advised, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

The religious exemption is untenable. It amounts to a work-around for individuals who, for whatever reason, think a private, unscientific conceit outweighs public health.


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