The latest attempt by the antivaccine movement to use religion to oppose school vaccine mandates

Ever since I’ve been writing about pseudoscience and the antivaccine movement, I’ve encountered antivaxxers trying to use religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Never mind that no major religion actually objects to vaccines. Indeed, I’ve been writing about how antivaxxers have used religion to try to avoid vaccines going back at least to 2006. It’s nothing new. Heck, Joe Mercola was playing the religion card to oppose vaccine mandates nearly ten years ago. Of late, antivaxxers have been really playing the “fetal cells” trope that claims that, because some childhood vaccines are manufactured from virus stock grown in cell lines derived from a fetus over 50 years ago, those vaccines are evil and tainted. Never mind that the most anti-abortion major religion in the world, the Catholic Church, has said that using such vaccines is acceptable given the temporal distance of the “evil” of abortion.

Well, they’re at it again:

Also, after seeing that Tweet, I started seeing links to the same document being passed around on antivaccine websites and on Facebook, for instance:

The link being spread around is to a letter to President Donald Trump from Shannon Kroner, who signs off on the letter as the President of Freedom of Religion – United Solutions (FOR-US); Kevin Barry, JD, who represents himself as First Freedoms; Renee Bessone, President, Conscience Coalition; James A. Moody, JD; and Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller, Robert Schuller Ministries. Of course, we’ve met two of these people before. Shannon Kroner tried to trick me into being the pro=vaccine patsy in an antivaccine “roundtable,” while Kevin Barry is in up to his neck in the “CDC Whistleblower” antivaccine conspiracy theory. So what are they up to now?

What do you think they’re up to? Of course, they’re spreading antivaccine disinformation in a letter designed to trick religious leaders into supporting their opposition to school vaccine mandates based on religion. It’s a letter to President Trump:

We write to you as a group of individuals and organizations, who are religious and secular leaders, scholars, human rights advocates, and medical professionals to express our serious concerns over the persecution of people of faith through vaccine mandates for school and daycare attendance. We urge your immediate intervention to prevent and remedy the persecution of people who choose to honor their faith by refusing or foregoing some or all vaccinations. Please consider implementing an executive order or other legal means to protect the religious freedom of vaccine choice.

This is silly in the extreme. School vaccine mandates are a matter of state law. President Trump can’t just write an executive order to override state efforts to eliminate religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates. States would have to pass laws. Of course, what Kroner, Barry, and the antivaxxers signing on to this letter with them are unhappy about is that, in response to the large measles outbreaks last year in areas with low MMR vaccine uptake, some states have eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. They’re also unhappy that others, such as New Jersey and Connecticut, are actively considering eliminating religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates. I suppose Trump could try to get federal legislation passed to force states to acknowledge religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates by tying such exemptions to important federal funding to the states, but such legislation would never get through the House and, even if it did, would likely be subject to legal challenge. Besides, he’s far too busy giving the right wing what it wants in the form of young, very conservative judges with lifetime appointments and the gutting of the regulatory state. This would be very low on his list of priorities. On the other hand, it is clever to frame resistance to laws eliminating nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates as an issue of “religious freedom,” given the very high level of support that Trump has among evangelicals.

Kroner and Barry aren’t done, of course:

In a recent speech you stated, “Religious liberty is under attack all over the world, and frankly, very strongly attacked in our nation.” Worldwide, without regard for individual religious freedom, governments are forcing and coercing a pharmaceutical product upon children that is made from religiously objectionable ingredients, specifically human aborted fetal DNA, animal cells, carcinogenic preservatives, and neurotoxins such as mercury and aluminum. This coercion of mandated vaccines is a clear attack on religious liberty and a form of government overreach. Making personal decisions about protecting one’s body is a basic human right, and most religions agree that our sacred bodies are the holiest of temples.

Except that parents are not making decisions about their bodies. They’re making decisions about their children’s bodies. Adults already have the right to refuse vaccines—or any other medical treatment—as long as they understand the consequences. They’re adults. Unfortunately, as I’ve said many times, when antivaxxers invoke “parental rights” they do so because they clearly view their children as either extensions of themselves or property, over whom they should have have, in essence, absolute authority. It’s an attitude I’ve pushed back against more times than I remember. Here’s the thing. Children are separate, autonomous beings and are temporary wards of their parents, who do not and should not have absolute power over them. When parents make decisions that are clearly harmful to their children, such as not vaccinating them, the state has not only the right but the duty to step in to protect children, even if religion is the reason for the neglect or abuse—no, especially if religion is the reason for abuse or neglect.

Antivaccine and religion

The next part of the letter is a bunch of misleading examples, typical of antivaccine propaganda. First up, the Samoan measles outbreak:

In 2019, Samoa mandated every man, woman, and child to be force-vaccinated by mobile medical units, accompanied by police, going door-to-door to inject them with the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. MMR is a live virus vaccine created using a human aborted fetal cell line known as MRC-5. The majority of Samoa’s population is Christian, with roughly 20% being Catholic. However, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a document in collaboration with the “Ufficio per la Pastorale della Salute” of Italian Bishops’ Conference and the “Association of Italian Catholic Doctors,” on July 31, 2017, asserting that Catholics should seek alternatives to vaccines that use human aborted fetal cell lines. Yet, alternatives remain unavailable.

Regular readers will remember that Samoa suffered a horrendous measles outbreak late last year that resulted in thousands sickened and dozens of deaths, mostly of unvaccinated children and that antivaxxers contributed, not only by spreading antivaccine misinformation but by denying that measles can kill and actively discouraging parents from vaccinating their children. So now Kroner and Barry bring religion into it because of course they do.

As for their characterization of the Roman Catholic Church’s position on the use of cell lines derived from fetuses to manufacture vaccines, that’s some mighty fine quote mining there! First of all, it’s important to note that the Pontifical Academy for Life represents only Roman Catholics, not all Christians. Second of all, notice how Kroner and Barry quote the less important part of the letter from the Pontifical Academy of Life and don’t mention the first part of the letter, which states that vaccines manufactured using the two cell lines derived in the 1960s from aborted fetuses are morally acceptable for Catholics to use. I will emphasize yet again that the the statement of the Pontifical Academy didn’t just say just what the antivaxxers quoted. Yes, it’s true that the Pontifical Academy for Life did urge scientists to look for methods of manufacturing vaccines that don’t require the use of the cell lines derived 50+ years ago from aborted fetuses to grow the virus stock used to make the vaccine. It’s also true (and not stated in Kroner and Barry’s letter) that the Pontifical Academy also stated that those cell lines are so far removed from the original abortions that use of such vaccines does not encourage abortion.

Basically, the Church concluded that the extreme good of protecting children’s lives far outweigh the distant evil (in the Church’s view) that created the cell lines, concluding in a FAQ:

There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good.

And:

It should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.

Next up Kroner and Barry invoke a conspiracy theory being pushed by a Bishop in Kenya:

The Kenya Catholic Doctors Association, and Kenyan Christian Professionals Forum, have spoken out against mass vaccination programs. Catholic bishops in Nairobi are warning people of the forced government sponsored Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination program. They have also declared a boycott of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) vaccination campaign due to receiving tetanus vaccines which tested positive for containing the HCG anti-fertility antigen, which is known to cause sterility.

No, no, no, no, no! This is pure bullshit. I’ve written about it before. It’s pure antivaccine disinformation. Nice lying, Shannon “not antivaccine” Kroner and Kevin “I read your book” Barry!

And again, Kroner and Barry invoke objections from one religious group:

In 2018, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa declaring the Measles Rubella vaccine “haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law due to the presence of porcine/pig contamination. Yet, the Muslim community in several U.S. states is being forced to give their children these same “haram” products or else lose access to attending public or private school, due to the loss of religious exemptions in their state.

Antivaxxers can always find some Islamic group or other that will declare vaccine to be “haram” or some Jewish group to demonize vaccines based on their containing products derived from a pig. In this particular case, the harm done by this Council’s decision was substantial, as it sent measles immunization rates plummeting. Another thing to keep in mind is that this particular Council has no authority or jurisdiction outside of its area. This ruling does not apply to Muslim children in the US. Again, Kroner and Barry also left something out, namely that this is also a severely contradictory ruling based on a confused take on religion:

To salvage the campaign, the health ministry in August lobbied the central MUI to issue a fatwa—a ruling under Islamic law—declaring the vaccine halal. Instead, the council declared the MR vaccine haram, based on its ingredients and manufacturing process. Like many vaccines, it is made using several porcine components. Trypsin, an enzyme, helps separate the cells in which the vaccine viruses are grown from their glass container. Gelatin derived from pigs’ skin serves as a stabilizer, protecting vaccine viruses as they are freeze-dried. MUI took pains not to block the vaccination campaign. It ruled that parents could still have their children vaccinated, given the need to protect public health. “Trusted experts have explained the dangers posed by not being immunized,” MUI said, a message it reiterated at a public consultation with Health Minister Nila Moeloek on 18 September.

Obviously, this is and incredibly frustrating ruling. Basically, the Council said that the measles vaccine was haram based on the religion of Islam but then said vaccinate your kids anyway because of the great good the vaccine does. Is it any wonder the faithful were confused? Be that as it may, I’ve been writing about examples of this sort of problem since at least 2007. 2005, when Islamic clerics frightened their followers into thinking that vaccines were somehow “un-Islamic” or, even worse, a plot by the West to destroy the fertility of Muslim women. In reality, the presence of gelatin in some vaccines is not considered a problem by the vast majority of Muslim and Jewish leaders, Islam and Judaism being the two main religions that consider pigs to be unclean:

Clerics in many Muslim countries have concluded that gelatin in vaccines is halal because it has undergone hydrolysis, a chemical transformation that purifies it under an Islamic legal concept called istihalah. And in 2013, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore declared a rotavirus vaccine halal despite the use of trypsin; it ruled that the enzyme had been made pure by dilution and the addition of other pure compounds, which is known as istihlak. If Muslim parents learn about the diverse legal views within Islam, Apin says, “they won’t hesitate to vaccinate their children.”

In fact, no major religion considers vaccination to be sinful or unlawful. As an aside, I will also point out that Jewish dietary laws do not apply to injected material, only to foods or medicines consumed by mouth. So when Jewish law is invoked as a reason for Jews not to vaccinate, it is also nonsense.

Next, some more ranting about freedom that ignores any societal obligation or a parent’s obligation:

When governments abuse their power to oppress citizens over their religious beliefs, tyranny is the only word for this persecution. The medical and pharmaceutical lobby are unaccountable to the American people. State militarization of public health in the 21st century should be of great concern to every person who values life and liberty. These laws repealing religious exemptions violate fundamental human rights to informed choice, bodily autonomy, and also the civil rights to attend both public and private schools. On January 18, 2019, you stated in the Proclamation on National School Choice, “Every child deserves the chance to flourish in an educational environment that best leverages their unique learning style, cultivates their talent, and develops the skills needed to succeed in an ever-changing world.” Yet, in 2019 alone, these overreaching vaccine mandate laws have caused close to 30,000 students to be kicked out of U.S. schools for declining even one mandated vaccine. In addition, these laws violate the foundational First Amendment right to freely exercise one’s faith, and also violate the equivalent protections provided in state constitutions.

No, school vaccine mandates do not violate anyone’s rights. They are not “discrimination.” They are not “segregation.” You know, as I read the passage above, I couldn’t help but picture Kroner and Barry, asking, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

Or maybe this:

Next up, it’s time for an appeal to “purity of essence” and “precious bodily fluids” based on religion:

No person of faith should ever be forced to inject human aborted fetal DNA into their children in order for them to attend school. The government cannot compel, or unreasonably burden one’s choice, which leads to permanent alteration of our sacred bodies and the human immune system.

Which reminded me of:

No, seriously. Kroner and Barry are being that ridiculous.

Then, of course, there’s an appeal to “informed consent” and the Nuremberg Code, two favorite antivaccine tropes. What needs to be understood is that what antivaxxers view as “informed consent” is in reality what I like to call “misinformed consent” or, more accurately given that they are trying to get people to decline vaccines, “misinformed refusal.” Basically, antivaxxers attribute harms to vaccines that vaccines do not cause and deny benefits of vaccines that they, in fact, produce, thus falsely skewing the entire risk-benefit ratio to portray vaccines as doing far more harm than good. If, for example, a mother refuses vaccination for her children based on the slanted discussion of the risks and benefits of vaccines, she’s doing so based on misinformation, hence “misinformed refusal.”

Finally, the Nuremberg Code is about human experimentation, specifically the use of human beings as subjects for medical research. Vaccines mandated by states for entry into school are not experimental. They are approved. The Nuremberg Code does not apply, but it is a useful trope for antivaxxers to imply that vaccines are experimental and to associate them with Nazis.

Typical for them, Kroner and Barry can’t resist citing the cherry picked out-of-context quotes by World Health Organization experts at the recent World Vaccine Safety Summit, stating:

Yet, medical professionals speaking at the World Health Organization Vaccine Safety Summit in December 2019 admitted that scientists do not truly understand how vaccine adjuvants work, also that studies on vaccines in pregnancy do not exist, and that there are no safety studies on injecting multiple vaccines, with multiple adjuvants, into a child at once.

I’ve already dealt with the distortions inherent in the way these quotes were presented here. Medical professionals said no such things, and there are numerous studies of multiple vaccines. They just don’t show what antivaxxers think they should show. Quite the opposite, in fact! If anything, studies suggest that the vaccinated are healthier than unvaccinated children!

Again, unsurprisingly, Kroner and Barry can’t resist quoting Heidi Larson, Director of the WHO’s Vaccine Confidence Project:

We need much more investment in safety science…The other thing that’s a trend and an issue is not just confidence in patients but confidence of health care providers…When the front-line professionals are starting to question (the safety of vaccines) or they don’t feel like they have enough confidence about the safety to stand up to it, to the person asking them the questions. I mean, most medical school curriculums, even nursing curriculums, I mean in medical school you’re lucky if you have a half-day on vaccines. Never mind keeping up to date with all this.

Thanks again, Prof. Larson, for giving antivaxxers a gift that has launched dozens, if not hundreds, of antivaccine memes and that will be cited by antivaxxers for years, if not decades, and not doing a damned thing to clean up your mess. This quote by Prof. Larson is an epic fail for someone running something called the Vaccine Confidence Project. One more time, I call bullshit on her claim about medical school curriculum. For one thing, there’s a lot more that relates to vaccines than just studying the vaccines. We study immunology, pathology, microbiology, and more, and we spend many months doing it. Second, we learn more about how to interpret clinical trials in residency than in medical school. Be that as it may, just because there are antivaccine physicians and nurses and because some providers have started to “question” vaccines does not mean that vaccines are unsafe.

Kroner and Barry finish with a flourish:

Mr. President, we appreciate that you consistently endorse and enforce the principle and preservation of religious freedom. We thank you for proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day and ask that you go one step further and rightfully do everything in your power to protect religious vaccine exemptions. We respectfully ask you to please ensure that those of faith are not forced to violate their Constitutional rights of freedom of religion in order to exercise their Civil rights, including the right to education.

Please take immediate action to protect religious liberty with respect to mandated vaccines.

Looking at the list of signers and supporters, I saw many names I didn’t recognize and some that I did, such as Kroner, Barry, Father Michael Copenhagen, who apparently doesn’t agree with Catholic Church teaching with respect to vaccines, and Rabbi Hillel Handler, whose role in encouraging Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Rockland County not to vaccinated was despicable and based on antivaccine disinformation and talking points. Hilariously, I also saw excellent examples of crank magnetism in that the Creation Ministry, a bunch of young earth creationists who deny evolution, and Pastor Ricardo Beas of the Natural Law Church of Health and Healing, which appears to be an all-purpose crank religion for which no pseudoscience or conspiracy theory is too far out there:

Our life and freedom are being attacked from all fronts: (1) mandatory vaccines with resulting autism rates increasing every day [now 1-62], (2) GMO crops pushed on the masses, (3) clandestine aerial spraying of toxic chemicals, (4) weather modification programs disrupting micro and macro climates, (5) practitioners of proven effective non-orthodox cancer treatments being prosecuted, (6) sellers of products that cure cancer threatened and jailed, (7) the whole Middle East maintained in chaos, governments illegally overthrown or forced to submit to US/UN rule, (8) the United Nations applying Agenda 21 globally for confiscation of property and control of all human activity, (9) a fictitious “climate change/global warming” agenda being used to close the circle of control and directly or by implication ushering the beginning of The New World Order, (10) application of advanced technology for mind control of the masses through smart meters, cell towers, whether and communication systems [including HAARP], electronic devices, spraying of Smart Dust [self-replicating nano technology particles/artifacts entering our bodies and the environment], (11) elite global control of financial institutions by manipulating all markets, destroying economies and people’s lives, (12) the government illegally intercepting all communications, everyone being tracked, and (13) what appears to be an agenda to reduce the population of the world in significant numbers through sterilization, disease, famine and war.

And when will it all stop or will we be able to see the end of this? NEVER, IF WE PERSONALLY DON’T GET INVOLVED AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Pastor Beas is even into Erin Elizabeth’s conspiracy theory that “they” (pharma, the government, the medical industry) are out there killingnatural healthpractitioners:

Due to my anti-mandatory-vaccine activism and the recent unusually high number of mysterious deaths of homeopaths and others involved in natural cures for cancer or who are against forced vaccination, I anticipate the possibility of attempts on my life. If I were to be assassinated (I would never consider suicide) I authorize any Member or Disciple of this Church to create a chapter with the same name, such as Natural Law Church of Health and Healing – Los Angeles Chapter 1, anywhere in the world, so long as such natural-born man or woman follow all Church Principles as outlined in the Church’s webpages.

How generous of him! What foresight to make sure his religion survives after his death!

I thought about going through and Googling every name on the list, but I got tired and this post is already long. However, if there are any antivaxxers who are even more amusing cranks than Pastor Beas, please let me know!

Unfortunately, framing opposition to school vaccine mandates as an issue of religion and religious freedom is an appealing message and part of the reason why antivaxxers have over the last several years managed to make so many inroads into conservative and Republican causes, in particular because antivaxxers have also coupled their message with appeals to “parental rights” and to the general conservative revulsion towards what they view government overreach. I can laugh at this letter because it’s so full of disinformation and misinformation, but unfortunately it might well be persuasive to many, as it’s gotten over 28,000 signatures already.