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Religious exemptions to vaccines further erode the wall between church and state

·3 min read

Welcome to NC Voices, where leaders, readers and experts from across North Carolina can speak on issues affecting our communities. Send submissions of 300 words or fewer to opinion@newsobserver.com.

Wary of religious exemptions

The First Amendment begins with language intended to keep religion out of government and government out of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Today, this language prevents any governmental body from favoring one religion over another, or over no religion. Unfortunately, this wall of separation has recently experienced serious erosion.

In a recent editorial, the N&O and Charlotte Observer criticized one instance of this erosion — the diversion of taxpayer dollars from public schools to schools that use religious justifications to discriminate against LGBTQ children. While Opportunity Scholarships pass legal muster, they violate the spirit of the law. My tax dollars are used to support religious-based discrimination and this use my tax dollars favors the religion of those who discriminate over my religion.

Vaccine resistance is another place where religious exemption is being used and Jefferson’s wall has been eroded. While the First Amendment prevents the establishment of a preferred religion, it also ensures that citizens can believe as they choose and practice their religion freely — within limits.

Some vaccine refusers claim a religious justification on the grounds of free exercise. If individual religious objections to vaccines can supersede mandates designed to protect the public, we are headed for a society where anyone can invoke a “deeply held belief” to choose to ignore any law they wish. This flies in the face not only of common sense, but also the Constitution.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by President Clinton in 1993, had broad support across the political spectrum as a means of protecting minority religious practices. Since that time, the RFRA has been twisted so that it has been used to justify discrimination and other harms in the name of religion.

The Do No Harm Act, currently in the U.S. House and Senate, would modify the RFRA to clarify that religion cannot be used to harm people. This legislation is vital to restoring a level playing field that does not privilege one religion over another or no religion.

As James Madison said, “religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”’

Helen Wolfson, Durham

NC schools: Act now on inequities

Writer is a Parent Advocate with Every Child NC.

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1997 that our state was not providing a sound basic education to all students. The landmark Leandro ruling is still with us, except now our schools also face safety issues related to COVID — on top of deep inequities.

While some N.C. counties are providing COVID testing and outdoor seating, others are not. We have wealthy PTA fundraising and school foundations trying to fill in gaps in some places. Our deep divides between zip codes, the essential inequity identified in the Leandro ruling, are getting worse not better.

In addition, we have counties that do not have a mask mandate making COVID safety an equity issue as well.

Staff shortages and safety concerns on top of the lack of adequate, equitable funding seems daunting. Yet, our state lawmakers have the ability to fix this issue. We have enormous amounts in our unspent fund balance, estimated at $6.5 billion.

The state has under-invested our state revenue leaving us near the bottom in the U.S. when it comes to school funding. Federal dollars were never meant to make up for state funding shortages. The American Rescue Plan, like the federal relief packages before it, is meant to provide our state with funds to keep our kids and community safe from a virus and help those impacted by it.

Our state lawmakers need to step up to their constitutional responsibility to provide a sound basic education to all students. This means funding our schools. This means complying with the Leandro court order.

Parents, teachers and others in our community are asking for bare minimum standards. Our schools were underfunded long before the pandemic. Now we have the added burden of COVID safety. The divides deepen while we wait for our lawmakers to act.

Susan Book, Cary

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