Old Time Religion

Old Time Religion

by Paul Morantz

Copyright September 2015

Where have you gone Ben Bradlee? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Or does it?

Once upon a time, newspapers in this country could be relied upon to ignore press-release hype and burrow for the facts. If not, they’ have to deal with tough, old-school editors like Bradlee, best known for shepherding the Washington Post’s history-altering coverage of the Watergate scandal.

But in the amped-up internet age, rumors and speculation seem more valued than fact-checking.Which brings me to local press coverage of an important issue: vaccination policy. The Santa Monica Daily Press, CNN and the Los Angeles Times reported that the signing of a California bill by Gov. Jerry Brown meant that parents could no longer reject vaccinations for their children and rely instead on prayer. My reaction was “great.” But that isn’t the whole story. The so-called religious exception was indeed removed for certain diseases. But for others, parents retain the right to decline the shots for their children. If that’s their choice, however, they must then school their children at home.

This science-vs.-religion debate has simmered for 35 years, since the successful prosecution of parents whose child died after they rejected medications recommended by a doctor. On a radio show at the time, I listened to a ten-minute rant by an attorney for certain religious groups who insisted this would destroy a family’s right to its religious beliefs. “That’s true,” I responded, “but that’s better than a dead baby.”

Now, in light of dangerous new viruses that threaten black plague-like pandemics and a host of controversial medical advances, including the ability to use a mutated HIV virus to combat cancer, the debate has risen again. And my response is the same as it was 35 years ago: If we, as a society, want to deny possible life-saving medications to children suffering from painful and often terminal illnesses, and tell them they must leave their fate in God’s hands, we’d better be prepared to give them the right to vote.

The bill, as passed, certainly won’t end the controversy, and might actually pour more fuel on it. Even with the partial exception, religious opponents of the bill can’t be happy that their children could be excluded from schools just for practicing their religious beliefs. Already, opponents have demonstrated and are reportedly planning litigation. While a First Amendment challenge will probably fail, the way the bill was written adds an argument of discrimination against the religiously inclined. Further, it’s difficult to argue that the bill will protect the public from the spread of contagion. While you may remove the unvaccinated from the school population, it’s hard to imagine the two groups won’t commingle in other public spaces—malls, theaters, parks and beaches, among others. The plague might still spread. Kids might die, but church bells will ring.

I’m amazed that we’re still having this debate after all these years. These religious exceptions are prehistoric relics and should have been put in a time machine and sent back long ago. They exist in California’s statutes only because once, the federal government threatened to cut off certain funding if it wasn’t included. But the Feds abandoned that stance in 1983, so there’s no need for the state to continue including it. I am currently fighting a similar battle in pushing for the passage of state Senate Bill 524 and a federal equivalent that requires licensing, safeguards and protection in the so-called Tough Love troubled teen industry. While I strongly believe that we must pass these bills, the California version also contains a clause recognizing religious prayer as a medical alternative; after much political chatter, the clause remains but at least language is being drafted making it clear that the exception won’t apply to any organization requiring licensing under the statute.

We need to climb out of the dark ages on this issue, which continues to threaten the safety of wide segments of the population. Here, innocent children will pay for it. Thankfully, there is no religious exception in the federal version soon to be introduced.

Maybe next time the religious right will re-animate another should-be-dead issue by marching in Santa Monica to protest the teaching of evolution in schools. When they do, I hope the newspapers get it right.