Monday, June 23, 2014

Religious freedom is not absolute

I'm delighted that a judge in New York City upheld the city's policy on banning unvaccinated children from school when there are outbreaks of communicable diseases. Those objecting to the policy appear to be motivated largely by religious belief. (Some children can't be vaccinated for health reasons — they're allergic to the vaccine, for instance — and I don't include them in the following discussion.)

There's a pernicious idea circulating among those who make religion the central priority of their lives: that the First Amendment gives them unfettered freedom to do what they like in the name of their religion. I'll grant that the bare wording of the amendment can lead to that conclusion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
However, those who seek to use the First Amendment as a club to shatter any law they don't like are wrong on both juridical and practical grounds.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld curbs on the First Amendment, and indeed, on every right granted by the Constitution. The Court has understood, and in its rulings has sought to explain to the rest of us, that different rights granted by the Constitution can come into conflict. When they do, it's the job of either Congress or the Court to sort out priorities. This is merely the Constitutional expression of a larger principle: in a large society, not everyone's interests can be simultaneously given free rein.

Those who seek absolute freedom to express their religious beliefs simply — and I suspect, knowingly — misread the application of the Constitution to our practical governance. It's a cynical power grab that seeks to elevate religious freedom above the common good.

The limit expressed in the New York City policy is unassailably reasonable. It simply says that if a measles outbreak is raging, kids who haven't been vaccinated against measles can't attend class. That's sound public health policy.

Here's what one of those opposed to the city's policy says:

“We’d rather rely on our natural immune system and our faith in God. This is about my children’s rights.”
No, it's not. This is about balancing rights: the right of your children to attend school, versus the right of other children not to be unreasonably exposed to a public health risk.

Attendance of public school is a right, but like all rights, this one has limits. Schools have rules, and the rules to protect the health of students and staff are among the most fundamental and important. Parents who don't vaccinate their children leave those children vulnerable, and even worse, reduce herd immunity. As a society, we've deemed public health to be a higher priority than religious freedom.

Your right to exercise your religion is not unfettered. You might not always realize that because in the main, the practices of Judeo-Christian religious denominations in the U.S. are consonant with the law, but limits exist. More importantly, the principle of there being limits on the free exercise of religion is well-established in our law and everyday practice. We would not permit human sacrifice under the color of religious freedom, for instance. The religious practice need not be that extreme, however, for it to conflict with law and public policy. When that happens, religion does not always win. Nor should it.

Stop crying "victim", religious advocates. It's absurd, it's tiresome and you're wrong. You have plenty of room to exercise your religion.

[EDIT: In fourth paragraph, second sentence, fixed a typo: "seems" should have been "seeks".]

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