Seated in an ornate, columned hearing room before a panel of state legislators, the 7-year-old girl spoke with conviction.
“I love God with my whole heart,” she said. “He made our immune systems perfect.”
Therefore she — and other children from families with such religious beliefs — should be exempt from requirements to get vaccinated against measles and other infectious diseases, the girl argued.
A crowd of supporters erupted in applause. And within days, lawmakers tabled their effort to tighten the state’s school vaccination rules, leaving intact the option of obtaining a religious exemption.
A scene from a red state, perhaps? Somewhere in the Great Plains or the Deep South?
Try New Jersey, which has voted for Democrats in the last eight presidential elections.
West Virginia and Mississippi have two of the lowest rates of vaccination against COVID-19, and lately they have paid the price with jammed hospitals and school closures. Just 40% of West Virginians and 41% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated, according to Covid Act Now, a nonprofit that tracks pandemic trends.
But the states’ longtime success in school vaccination is built on firm policy, Buttenheim said: For decades, they were the only two states not to allow religious or personal-belief exemptions.
West Virginia and Mississippi are respectively, the seventh most religious state and the most religious state in the USA. The low rate of vaccination against the coronavirus therefore is not surprising. Ironically, the religiosity of the two states also may help account for them being the only two states not to allow religious or personal belief exemptions.
There is, nonetheless, hope for New Jersey. Avril notes
New Jersey lawmakers have reintroduced their proposal to ban religious exemptions. Democrat Herb Conaway, the bill’s sponsor in the state Assembly, where it passed in December 2019 before stalling in the state Senate, did not respond to a request for comment.
But in a floor speech to colleagues back then, Conaway, a physician, made his views clear, railing against “junk science.”
“It’s tragic that a child would die or suffer a grievous illness by a disease which is preventable by a vaccine,” he said. “Vaccines have been proven time and time again. Vaccine mandates have been proven time and time again to save lives.”
It's not only irresponsible but absurd that legislators would more highly value the testimony of a child than that of adult professionals with educational and professional achievements in the scientific or medical fields.
Science did not carry the day in New Jersey in January 2020, when state senators scrapped their effort to eliminate religious exemptions after the testimony from the 7-year-old girl, Emelia Walls of Cape May.
The sincerity of people leaning on a religious liberty exception to being vaccinated undoubtedly varies from one individual to another. However, the validity of their objection does not vary. Through belief or formal affiliation, Emelia presumably identifies with a specific Christian denomination or generally as a Christian. But there is nothing in the Bible about vaccination, there is nothing in Scripture about the quality of immune systems, and the sects which have qualms about vaccination are extremely small.
It's not science vs. religion. It's science vs. emotion, and the objective is to intimidate those on the side of public health, who are expected to cower before individuals, especially little children, who claim an entitlement because of supposed religious faith. In New Jersey, Assemblyman Conaway, as a medical doctor arguing from a position of strength, has been able to withstand the intimidation.
Nevertheless, too few legislators in too few states are able to do so. It may be no coincidence that West Virginia and Mississippi, two states with a dominant Christian culture, traditionally have been able to withstand pleas from individuals or groups who claim a special insight into God's perspective on immunization.