Survey: Americans Concerned Too Many Are Seeking Religious Exemptions to Vaccines

A woman holds a rosary and a picture of the Virgin Mary during a 2019 hearing in Albany, N.Y., challenging the constitutionality of the state's repeal of the religious exemption to vaccination. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — A new poll reveals most Americans are in favor of offering religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccines, yet express concern that too many people are seeking such exemptions. In the same survey, more than half of those who refuse to get vaccinated say getting the shot goes against their personal faith.

The poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core and released Thursday (Dec. 9), investigated ongoing debates about COVID-19 vaccines as well as emerging divisions over whether religious exemptions to the shots should even exist.

According to the survey, a small majority (51%) of Americans favor allowing individuals who would otherwise be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to opt out if it violates their religious beliefs, compared with 47% who oppose such religious exemptions.

The divide, which researchers noted has remained roughly the same since they began surveying on the question earlier this year, yawns wider when respondents are broken out by party: Only 33% of Democrats support religious exemptions to vaccines, whereas most independents (53%) and a broad majority of Republicans (73%) are in favor of them.

Even so, majorities of almost every religious group believe there are no valid religious reasons to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, including Hispanic Catholics (68%), other Christians (68%), Jewish Americans (67%), Hispanic Protestants (64%), white Catholics (62%), members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (60%), Black Protestants (59%), white mainline Protestants (56%) and other Protestants of color (51%).

Religiously unaffiliated Americans were the most likely to say there are no valid religious reasons to refuse the vaccine, at 69%, whereas white evangelical Protestants were the only faith group among whom fewer than half (41%) said the same.

Two groups — white evangelical Protestants and "other Protestants of color," a category that includes Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, among others — were the only major faith groups among whom less than a majority (38% each) agreed that "too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid COVID-19 vaccination requirements." Jewish Americans, on the other hand, were the most likely to agree with the statement (72%), followed by Latter-day Saints (68%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (67%). Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants, white mainline Protestants and Hispanic Protestants all hovered between 63% and 58%.

A majority of Democrats (77%) and Americans overall (59%) also said they believe too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid COVID-19 vaccines, but Republicans (41%) and Republicans who trust far-right news sources (18%) were notably less likely to agree.
The survey was conducted between Oct. 18 and Nov. 9, 2021, before the discovery of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. While a smattering of preliminary research suggests the new strain may produce more mild cases, reports that it may also be more transmissible and at least partially evade protection from two-dose vaccines have spurred a surge in Americans seeking booster doses.

Faith groups and religious leaders have been generally supportive of vaccines overall, and many have assisted with the vaccine rollout by partnering with government leaders to host vaccination drives at their houses of worship. Faith leaders have also actively promoted inoculations across the globe, with rabbis participating in vaccine trials and Pope Francis describing getting the shot as "an act of love."

Religious outreach appears to be working, according to PRRI's data. Among Latter-day Saints, 46% said faith-based approaches impacted their decisions to get vaccinated, as did 27% of Black Protestants and 26% of Hispanic Catholics. The numbers were generally even higher among devotees who attend religious services regularly.

Vaccine acceptance has also greatly increased across religious groups since March. For example, Hispanic Protestants leapt from 43% in the spring to 77% by November. White evangelicals also increased, from 45% to 65%, although they are now the religious group with the least amount of vaccine acceptance.

Many religious authorities, meanwhile, have rejected appeals for religious exemptions. Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, one of former President Donald Trump's faith advisers during his presidency, came out against religious exemptions earlier this year, telling The Associated Press "there is no credible religious argument against the vaccines."

Several major U.S. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses have taken similar stances.

"There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine," read a letter sent to priests by the Archdiocese of New York.

Yet, the PRRI data underscores the faith-fueled vaccine debates that continue among some religious communities. There remains a vocal subset of Americans who express vaccine hesitancy or even outright anti-vaccine sentiment, with many couching their beliefs in a mixture of conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism. The percentage of vaccine refusers has remained roughly stable for many religious groups. This includes white evangelicals, whose vaccine refusal rate has consistently hovered around 25% — the highest of any religious group.

Some conservative activists have actively encouraged people to opt out of various vaccine mandates by asking for a religious exemption. Among their reasons: opposition to pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines using cells believed to have been originally derived from tissue from fetuses aborted decades ago — a common practice used in the creation of many modern medicines.

The debate escalated last month when faith leaders organized by a band of onetime Trump faith advisers sent a letter to U.S. military leaders urging them to allow service members to opt out of mandated COVID-19 vaccination because of their faith.

"We should be rewarding their bravery and the bravery of all our men and women in uniform, by not forcing them to choose between sincere religious convictions and staying in the military," the letter read in part.

According to the PRRI poll, vaccine refusers are deeply supportive of religious exemptions, with 85% backing them compared with 44% of vaccine-acceptant Americans.

Vaccine refusers were also the most likely to say they agree with the statement that "receiving the COVID-19 vaccination goes against my religious beliefs," with 52% saying yes.

But the number shifted when the question was changed slightly to emphasize the teachings of their faith: Only 33% said they agreed that "the teachings of my religion prohibit receiving a COVID-19 vaccination."

The survey was conducted online, reached more than 5,700 total respondents and reports a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with


more from IFYC

Many content creators use their platforms to build community beyond their brick-and-mortar congregations, to dispel myths, break stereotypes and invite people from diverse faiths to get a glimpse into their lives.
IFYC's innovative online learning experience, #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, offers lessons on how to approach others online in a way that leads to building bridges.
Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.
Some are calling out historical injustices the church has carried out against Native Americans, even as others find their faith empowering.
IFYC’s Vote is Sacred campaign launched on January 13. Faith leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and organizers are joining to advocate for an inclusive, nonpartisan interfaith approach to restoring and protecting our democracy.
One out of five Muslims is in an interfaith relationship, surveys suggest. But few imams are willing to conform the traditional Muslim wedding ceremony to their needs, couples say.
In her popular podcast series, Corrigan invites guests to wonder about 'the elephant in America's living room': belief and religion. 'I hope I have a hundred more conversations like these in 2022 and beyond,' she says.
In his annual address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope stressed the individual's responsibility 'to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us.'
The very people who have been subject to the worst of the United States have embodied its best.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.