The number one cause of homophobia on the planet is almost certainly religion. Yet each time equal rights laws are passed religious groups leap into action claiming that across the board enforcement of equality laws is an infringement of religious freedoms, the freedom in question being the freedom to to discriminate against gay people on the basis that you believe in a non-existent deity. These arguments do not always win out, as we saw in Northern Ireland this week.
Irrational beliefs, of course, should be no reason for an exemption to the law. Deep seated bigotry is still given obscene levels of credibility when it is dressed up as religious belief. When a religion seeks an exemption from the law, that law must be enforced more strongly.
Religious exemptions to laws, however, are not limited to the oppression of gays, women, or whatever “minority” – these minorities always add up to a majority – a particular religion is going after at any particular moment.
This special pleading also extends to such vital areas of public health as vaccination programs. Many children have undoubtedly died because of fatuous opt-outs from vaccines on the basis of “philosophical” or religious beliefs. These opt outs are little more than the kow towing to the irrational impulses of a sub-section of humanity. Herd immunity is now threatened by them.
Bone headedness, as is well known, is apt to spread. Grant some parents the right to put their children’s health at risk, and you won’t have much chance of arguing against anyone else who puts forward zany philosophical or religious reasons for refusing to vaccinate their children.
Fortunately, as Jerry Coyne states in a new piece in Slate, the state of California appears to have removed the dangerous opt out option for vaccines.
Importantly, Coyne goes further:
Vaccinations are safe and essential for the health of our society. We cannot allow philosophy or faith to trump public health. But denying children potentially life-saving vaccines is just one part of the problem; I’d like to eliminate even more exemptions: those now enshrined in many laws permitting religious parents to withhold scientific medical care from their children in favor of faith healing.
Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports, 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.
If your faith mandates spiritual healing and your child dies because you offer prayer instead of insulin or antibiotics, your chances of being charged with a crime are slim. There are religious exemptions for child neglect and abuse, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter. Several states allow parents to use a religious defense against charges of murder of their child—and in some places they can’t be charged with murder at all.
These facts should, but won’t, outrage many people. As Salman Rushdie has said, “respect for religion is often code for fear of religion – at least in the case of one particular religion. But more often respect is just that, respect, a respect that is not warranted or deserved. If a Jehovah’s Witness decides that their child should die instead of receiving a blood donation, that parent does not deserve respect or sensitive treatment; instead that parent deserves condemnation and the direct intervention by government authorities to ensure that child lives. And the same should go for any other parent whose irrational beliefs are threatening the lives of their children.