An Ohio hospital fired a 58-year-old vegan customer service representative for refusing a flu shot in 2010. She sued the hospital for religious discrimination.
If recently proposed federal legislation passes, vegans like her and me might get needles jammed into our arms against our will. Until scientists make vaccines without animal or insect parts, however, the nonmedical vaccination exemptions should stay. Veganism should be a religion, and as the U.S. Constitution puts it, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
A religion’s scope is open to interpretation. Religion is broadly defined as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief,” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “in most cases whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not at issue,” the Code of Federal Regulations adds. “In those cases in which the issue does exist, the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
I’ve been a vegan since birth, besides the rare times my friends would slip ham in my sandwich or when I would sample a birthday cake. I don’t wear leather jackets or eat animal-based foods because I believe animals shouldn’t have to be hurt or killed. All of the species on Earth are connected: For the good of Planet Earth, all species should be treated equally and live in peace. In United States v. Seeger (1965), the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a man to skip a military draft because his religious objections, like mine, were as strong as a traditional religious group’s belief in a supreme being.
Consciously accepting chicken parts in a measles shot is as unethical as accepting eggs and bacon for breakfast. The vaccine is a weakened version of the measles virus — weakened so a human immune system can build up defenses to prevent the real virus. Back in the old days, biologists created Frankenstein bacteria from sugars and salts, but to grow weak viruses, they needed extra nutrition from unhatched chicken eggs called embryos. Vaccine manufacturer Novavax has an HPV vaccine with insect cells, but even if insects could someday work for measles, they’re no better.
In the workplace, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents new job rejection, segregation or firing employees. The document notes that employers should not discriminate based on religion unless the beliefs, observations or practice cause an “undue hardship” on business operations. The Ohio hospital tried to dismiss its vegan former employee’s case, but an Ohio court rejected the dismissal. Since there were only 141 people affected by measles as of Friday, and the outbreak is limited to certain areas, I don’t see refusing the measles shot as hurting business operations. If somebody is in a measles Ground Zero, they should be temporarily excused from work with pay or allowed to work remotely.
In education, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows students in public schools and universities to refuse vaccination for religious reasons. The attorney general can prosecute if students are denied admission or are not able to attend classes because of faith. Somehow, every state except Mississippi and West Virginia allows religious vaccine exemptions. If there were ever a measles outbreak on campus, UF would excuse me from classes, which makes sense — before widespread measles vaccination in 1980, about 2.6 million people were killed by the disease every year.
Maybe scientists could find cures instead of vaccines. Last year, scientists understood the liver cancer-causing Hepatitis C virus enough for the FDA to approve a $1,125 per pill drug.
“So far, it looks like this drug now available, probably will, in effect, eradicate Hepatitis C entirely,” said Dr. Chen Liu, lead Hepatitis C researcher and associate chair of the UF Department of Pathology. He said only time would tell if the virus grows resistant to the drug in large populations.
My opposition claims I’m risking lives. In the archaic Jacobson v. Massachusetts case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that a state has the power to require smallpox vaccination during an outbreak. Sure, we could require motorcyclists to wear helmets because more than 55,000 people are hurt in motorcycle accidents every year. We could also ban tobacco because about 3,000 people die every year from secondhand smoke.
Lawmakers should make exemptions harder to get while still respecting civil rights.
Andrew Silver is a UF mathematics junior. His column appears on Wednesdays.
[A version of this story ran on page 7 on 2/18/2015 under the headline “Refusing vaccines for veganism is a right"]