Religion ghosts in anti-vax wars: Why do some believers say this is a religious liberty fight?

From the start, there have been religion-news hooks in the news coverage of the movement claiming that vaccines against some childhood diseases — measles and others — do more harm than good.

For starters, large communities of Orthodox Jews live in New York City, which all but guarantees coverage by newsrooms that help define what news matters and what news does not. In this case, I think that we are dealing with an important subject — one that editors should assign to teams that include religion-beat professionals.

Here at GetReligion, I have received emails from readers that, in so many words, say: This is what happens when religious traditionalists start shouting “religious liberty” and saying that God wants them to do something crazy.

Let me state right up front: There are church-state implications in some of these cases, with the state claiming the right to force parents to take actions that violate their religious convictions. Then again, people who follow debates about religious liberty know that clashes linked to health, prayer, healing and parental rights are tragically common. Click here to see some GetReligion posts about coverage of cases in which actions based on religious beliefs have been labeled a “clear threat to life and health.”

So let’s go back to the measles wars. Many of the mainstream news reports on this topic have covered many of the science and public health arguments. What’s missing, however, is (a) material about why some religious people believe what they believe and (b) whether decades of U.S. Supreme Court rulings apply to these cases.

Consider, for example, the long, detailed Washington Post story that just ran with this headline: “Meet the New York couple donating millions to the anti-vax movement.” Here’s the overture:

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events — including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

How the Selzes came to support anti-vaccine ideas is unknown, but their financial impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsize role in spreading doubt and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent.

Why are they doing this? That’s a mystery and the Selz Foundation staff don’t want to talk about it.

One of the other big players in this story is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer, who is the leader and public face of a key anti-vax charity, the Informed Consent Action Network. Lisa Selz is the group’s president.

Do you need a religion hook to explore? Consider this one:

Bigtree’s appearances before ultra-Orthodox Jewish audiences in New York this spring, at the heart of the outbreak, have been particularly controversial. Some critics blasted his use of Holocaust imagery, including a yellow star of David he wore on his lapel during a March rally. ….

Bigtree said he did so to protest Rockland County’s attempt this spring to ban unvaccinated children from public places. “They were going to quarantine them during Passover,” he said during a Brooklyn forum earlier this month. “They weren’t going to be allowed in their own synagogues. I pulled out a yellow star of David . . . and I said, ‘I stand with the Orthodox Jewish Community in Rockland County, New York.’ ”

At this point I really want to know why — in terms of Jewish law and tradition — some Orthodox Jewish leaders believe that certain vaccines (or is it all vaccines) are sinful or wrong.

Is this simply a rejection of modernity? Or is there more to this debate than that? After all, lots of Jewish laws and tradition are pretty earthy and practical. Traditional forms of this faith, of course, have a lot to say about what people do with their bodies — from what food is kosher to when people can use their automobiles.

My point is that these subjects are often linked to specific traditions, laws and interpretations of scripture. In other words, there is religious content here that readers might need to know, if the goal is to understand what’s going on and why.

What about the religious liberty questions? Consider the top of this recent story from the Rockland/Westchester Journal News, care of the USA Today network:

Orthodox Jewish leaders and advocates in Rockland generally support the new state law that ends religious exemptions for vaccines, but have concerns that the legislation could infringe on religious liberties and lead to other efforts to do so.

"I share the deep concern that this bill sets a precedent to infringe on religious liberties going forward," Shoshana Bernstein, a pro-vaccine activist, said. "While this measure carries considerable concern for the future, on the other hand, it does provide a desperately needed solution to the current crisis and relief to parents of immunocompromised children.”

It's a complex issue, said Bernstein, who has been at the forefront of efforts to educate the Rockland Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community about vaccine safety.

"There is no perfect way to solve this," she said. "I can't come out totally on one side of this. The hope and prayer is that this will solve the immediate issues without causing extremely worrisome religious liberty issues in the future."

In other words, there are pro-vaccine activists — as well as the obvious anti-vaccine voices — who believe that there are religious liberty questions linked to these disputes that need careful consideration. As the old saying goes: Bad cases often produce bad rulings.

So why do some — repeat “some” — traditional religious believers reject vaccines? Are their reasons different than the secular anti-vax leaders? What have courts said about similar conflicts between faith and secular law?

If you are looking for content linked to questions of this kind, you won’t find it in the Washington Post story mentioned earlier.

I had my hopes up when I saw this Jewish Telegraphic Agency headline: “Why Orthodox communities are at the center of a measles outbreak.” But this feature basically repeated a familiar mantra: Orthodox Jews simply distrust the modern world and embrace bad information.

This report did include one interesting and, I believe, valid piece of information. Private Jewish schools have every right — as religious voluntary associations — to require students to be vaccinated. Parents have religious liberty rights, but so do private school leaders. Here’s that chunk of the JTA report:

Schools had also independently barred unvaccinated kids, leading in one case to legal action. After their child was kept out of Oholei Torah, a Brooklyn yeshiva, Sholom and Esther Laine sought an injunction last year that would force the school to accept their religious exemption to vaccines. Reached by phone on Thursday, Sholom Laine would not comment because the legal battle is ongoing.

Joseph Aron, a Brooklyn attorney focusing on religious and constitutional issues, said that according to New York state law, the school was well within its rights.

“There’s no obligation for a school to accept a religious exemption,” he said. “The school has total autonomy. The school doesn’t have to bend backwards and accept me if I have a medical reason to not get vaccinated.”

So here are my journalism questions: Can these stories be covered in a thorough and accurate way without discussion the religious traditions that are linked to some of these objections? Why not involve religion-beat professionals in this coverage?

Just asking.

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