On Aug. 31, Ohio University announced that all on-campus students and staff, including those at branch locations, will be required to receive full vaccination against COVID-19 by Nov. 15. Coming to the decision exactly a week after Ohio State University announced its vaccine mandate, the news was met with both relief and exasperation. I was rooting heavily for a vaccine mandate and am glad that it has arrived in some form.
However, a lot of my enthusiasm was withheld at the announcement before reading the entire letter from President Sherman, and about halfway through, a fear of mine was confirmed. “It’s important to note,” the fourth paragraph reads, “there will be an opportunity to apply for an exemption of the vaccine requirement for medical reasons or for reasons of conscience, including ethical and moral belief or sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Now, living in a secular society with deeply-rooted theocratic elements that permeate many government institutions, it’s not shocking to see a religious exemption show up here. “There have always been religious exceptions for medical procedures in the US thanks to our constitution,” said Cole Nuehart, a grad student studying engineering and a former member of OU College Republicans. “One example that comes to mind are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They refuse to take blood transfusions even in situations where it is critical to their survival. This is based on their interpretation of scripture.”
Nuehart says he doesn’t support the mandate as he believes it to be unnecessary to achieve herd immunity, which is a contested subject in the field of immunology. He is fully vaccinated himself.
“If the religious exemption was not in place, organizations such as the ACLU would file a civil suit faster than OU’s administration could say ‘sue’,” he said. While this is possible, there’s no consensus among legal experts on whether a judge would force an institution, especially a university that offers no binding contracts, to implement one.
In most cases unrelated to public health, I don’t see any issue with allowing religion as a justification for avoiding a practice of some sort. But this is a public health issue, and the once sturdy defense of individual rights becomes precarious in the face of a crisis that depends on everyone to do their part and has deadly consequences if they don’t.
“When your religion causes you to do harm to other people, [it] deserves zero respect and the law must come first,” said Andew Guidarelli, a senior studying aviation flight and co-founder of the OU Young Democratic Socialists of America. “‘Personal choice’ is only valid as long as it only puts yourself at risk.” Guidarelli supports the mandate and says that nixing exemptions would be a smart decision for the administration.
Going back to the clause itself, the wording is horribly ambiguous and invites more questions than answers, more skepticism than assurance, and more potential for legal challenges than the school realizes. What moral belief could possibly supersede public health? If you feel strongly enough about something, you could potentially endanger those around you? Appealing to morality in a scenario in which the school has already acknowledged the efficacy of the vaccine, evidenced by mandating in the first place, is incredibly pointless and contradictory.
Some may argue that religious beliefs are equally as tenuous as “moral beliefs,” or that they are one in the same. In many cases, I think there could be a distinction drawn between them, but in this case, not so much. The institutional heads of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Latter-Day Saints, and others have espoused pro-vaccine stances. Making the argument that religion is up to interpretation is a flimsy one when you’re wielding it against the recommendations of the scientific community and worldwide religious leadership.
Just as we struggle now to discern which religious exemptions, if any, are legitimate, Ohio University will struggle to arbitrate whose exemptions are valid as well. This leaves the door wide open for claims of discrimination and even potential legal action if a student’s exemption is denied but others’ are accepted. The looming threat of this will probably encourage the school to remain either extremely lenient on exemptions, which defeats the purpose of the mandate entirely, or very harsh, which defeats the purpose of including the exemptions at all.
If the school truly stands behind its belief in the scientific consensus that vaccines are good, safe and necessary to accelerate a recovery from this pandemic, no exemption outside of a medical reason is valid. Not only that, think about who this mandate is targeting in the first place: those who refuse to be vaccinated. If a student is unvaccinated at this stage, it’s because they have made a conscious choice to not take it and likely feel strongly enough to pursue an exemption for it. Resistance to the mandate is inevitable whether the religious exemptions are allowed or not, but including them will only give them further legal standing and create bigger headaches for the university down the line. Not to mention that unvaccinated students will still be on campus, potentially endangering themselves and others, which is what the mandate intends to minimize in the first place.
Camden Gilreath is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Camden know by tweeting him @camgilreath23.