5 Points About Vaccine Mandates to Help Protect Religious Liberty for Parents and Students

August 13, 2021
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by Keisha Russell • 7 min read

As the school year approaches, many parents are wondering about COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students and what to do if their family has a religious objection to the vaccine. First Liberty has put together this quick guide to address some of the most frequently asked questions for parents and students.

1. Will my child be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine to attend school in the fall?

Because COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been approved for children under the age of 12, elementary school children cannot be required to receive the vaccine. At this time, we also have not seen vaccine mandates in junior high schools or high schools, although this could become an issue in the coming months in certain states.

Some college students may be required to get the vaccine for the fall semester. To date, hundreds of colleges are now requiring the COVID-19 vaccine in order to attend the school or live in the dorms.

It is important to note that almost all of the colleges that do require the vaccine allow students to request medical or religious exemptions. Some schools provide alternate arrangements for students, such as remote learning or regular testing.

2. Could my child’s K-12 School require the COVID-19 vaccine in the future?

It largely depends on where you live. State governments decide which vaccines will be required for students in Kindergarten through high school. All fifty (50) states require vaccines for some childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps and rubella. The particular vaccines required vary by state.

All fifty (50) states grant exceptions for students who cannot have these vaccines for medical reasons. Forty four (44) states (all states except California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia) allow exceptions for religious reasons and fifteen (15) states allow exceptions for philosophical reasons. We will continue monitoring to see whether states will add the COVID-19 vaccine to their requirements for K-12 students.

For the COVID-19 vaccine, seven states have passed laws or issued executive orders that prevent schools from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to attend. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah. Thirty four (34) more states are considering implementing laws that could limit when proof of vaccination is required.

Some experts believe that it is unlikely for vaccines to be mandated for young students while the vaccine is still under emergency use authorization.

3. Can schools legally require the COVID-19 vaccine? If so, must they grant exceptions for students with religious objections?

States generally have the right to make rules that impact public health. Several court cases have upheld the general right to condition school attendance on receiving certain vaccines.

Whether this particular vaccine can be required for college students is currently being litigated. At least one federal appellate court has concluded that a public university may legally require students to receive the vaccine unless students have a religious or medical objection. The school required students that received an exemption to wear masks and be tested twice a week.

It is important to note that federal, state, and local governments—including public schools and universities—are required by the Constitution to not discriminate against religious students or families. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that religious rights remain intact even during a pandemic. Under current law, if a public school treats religious objections to the vaccine less favorably than other kinds of exceptions, it would have to have a compelling reason for doing so.

Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to adhere to the constitutional limits that apply to the government. Still, some states may have laws that prohibit private schools from discriminating against religious students. Whether or not required by law, many private schools will have processes for handling requests for religious or medical exceptions that mirror public schools.

4. How can I request a religious exemption?

First, respectfully request a religious exemption or accommodation in writing. A school may have a particular form or procedure for you to use. As you draft your request, be honest about your (or your family’s) religious beliefs. You should include an explanation about why your religious beliefs prevent you from getting this vaccine or vaccines in general. You can include references to scripture or religious authorities for additional support.

If you need examples of how to write a request for a religious accommodation, contact First Liberty for assistance.

It is okay if your personal religious beliefs do not align with a particular denomination. There are often disagreements within religions about particular ethical issues. The most important point is to be sincere about your own beliefs.

A school may then engage in follow up questions about your beliefs and possible alternatives to vaccines, such as wearing masks or regular testing. We encourage you to engage in this dialogue in good faith to come up with a solution that works for everyone.

5. What can I do if my exemption request is denied? What if I have other questions about my rights?

If your religious exemption request has been denied or if you have additional questions about your religious liberty rights, we urge you to immediately visit First Liberty’s website and fill out the online form to Request Legal Help. Our legal team offers free legal assistance and our attorneys stand ready to protect religious liberty for you and for all Americans.

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* First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit, charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. First Liberty conducts research and provides information on the effects of public policy on religious liberty.

The content of this publication is intended to be used for informational, educational and reference purposes only, and does not constitute legal or medical advice. Individuals should consult with an attorney or medical professional for further guidance.

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