Rabbi Jack Moline: Religious Exemptions from COVID Safety Put Others in Harm’s Way

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As an organization dedicated to protecting true religious freedom for people of all faiths and none, Interfaith Alliance will always defend the autonomy of personal belief, as is outlined in the Constitution. Even in cases where, as individuals, there may be disagreement. 

At the same time, our individual right to religious freedom ends where the rights of another begin. In other words, religious freedom is not a license to endanger the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. And while we remain in the midst of a deadly pandemic, it does not demand tying the hands of public officials who are trying to safeguard public health. 

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, explains this balance and how those committed to true religious freedom should approach matters of faith, freedom, and public safety:

I make it a matter of principle never to tell a person of faith how to observe their own tradition. Part of it is just simple respect. Part of it, too, is the number of times I have heard antagonists from within and without my own religion begin a challenge with, “I would think that as a rabbi you would…”

The First Amendment protects the autonomy of personal belief, and our work at Interfaith Alliance is devoted to protecting the First Amendment. We do so as a matter of law and as a matter of faith. The rights of believers and non-believers alike come under frequent assault. In my experience, those attacks are motivated by a sense of certainty about the rectitude of the aggressor’s values along with an insecurity that they can make the case for them in disagreement.

It is true, by the way, both for devotees to the orthodoxies of some religions and for adherents of the certainties of some secular philosophies. At Interfaith Alliance, we stand for faith and freedom unabridged by the aggressive disagreement of people who believe a different way.

The mind and the heart should remain unfettered in our country. But the public square is another story. It may not be possible to often – or ever – arrive at full consensus on how to secure the blessings of liberty to us and our posterity, but we have a system of governance of the people, by the people and for the people. The legislatures, courts, and administrations hold the authority to promote the general welfare; that common interest sometimes comes at the expense of individual dissent.

All of our rights are subject to such circumstances. When free speech threatens public safety – the proverbial false cry of “fire” in a crowd – it is prohibited. When petitioning for redress of grievances turns into insurrection, it is criminal. When the press obtains information that compromises national security, it is restrained. In each case, there may be a counter-argument. But in no case is there a legitimate defense that denies the authority of the Constitution over personal conviction.

The claim that religious belief exempts a citizen or a community from following the mandates to vaccinate and mask fall into that category. I cannot argue with the individual whose faith dictates that some practice of prayer or devotion will protect them from a virus. Flatly, I disagree with that conceit. But I defend the individual’s Constitutionally-guaranteed right to dissent.

However, as with everything else, there is a price to pay for civil disobedience, especially if by that disobedience other citizens are placed in harm’s way. The government that has been authorized by we, the people of the United States, has determined that the health and safety of everyone – vaccinated and unvaccinated alike – depends on the cooperation of the citizenry to reach “herd immunity.”  People who reject that authority out of conviction or fear (or, for that matter, out of fatigue or frustration) are in violation of the social contract that protects their dissent.

It is simply dishonest to claim only the convenient protections of citizenship. And the first people to understand that should be those who are most devoted to the first freedoms in the First Amendment.

I make this argument not to tell people how to believe or what to believe. The law cannot and should not even try to do so. But public behavior is a different story. The same kinds of laws that penalize a jurisdiction for trying to prevent a church from being built, that outlaw discrimination against a job applicant because of their religion, that prohibit a merchant from refusing to sell to a person on the basis of race must of necessity validate what is in the best estimation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the entire citizenry.

We often speak reverentially of those who make sacrifices for the well-being of our country. But it is not only those in the military, in public service or in first response who are reasonably expected to act at times against their personal inclinations for the benefit of others. The life of my neighbor may be dependent on the sacrifice I must make in these dangerous times.

I won’t tell anyone what to believe or how to observe their own tradition. But I will suggest that the singular marker of love of country and all it stands for is to do your part to promote the general welfare.

Learn more about how Interfaith Alliance works to advance true religious freedom for all.