August 19, 2021

The constitution, conscience and vaccines

How is the Adventist Christian supposed to work their way through the complex web of issues surrounding the vaccine, from constitutional and legal standards, to the moral and ethical issues, to where religious exemptions might apply, to how our pioneers viewed these questions. Here is a handy guide for the perplexed.

Constitutional & Legal Considerations     

The question of vaccine requirements is not a new one in the United States, but it’s something that has been considered by the government and courts for more than 100 years. 

As early as 1905, the US Supreme Court ruled that local governments could require vaccination of its citizens (1). A few years later, the Court ruled that Supreme Court says states can prohibit unvaccinated students from attending school (2). While these are relatively old cases, the Court has re-affirmed the basic validity of them a number of times since then, most recently in the 1990s (3).

Given the development of the law since World War II, and the importance of informed consent in medical treatment, it is highly unlikely that the Court would allow enforced vaccinations of all citizens. Lower courts, however, have frequently upheld the requirement of vaccinations for access to various public services and employment opportunities, such as public education, both primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities, as well as for medical and healthcare jobs. It is very likely the courts will come to the same results for vaccine passports, and similar requirements, set down for the use of public transportation, airlines, and attendance at certain public events.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently ruled that private employers may condition employment on vaccination status, and federal courts so far have agreed (4). Under federal disability and religious non-discrimination statutes, employers do have an obligation to consider medical and religious exemption requests, and consider alternate accommodations that can preserve safety in the workplace, such as wearing of masks in the presence of others and regular Covid testing. It is not unreasonable to seek accommodation from employers where possible, if masking and distancing and testing can keep others safe. As the recently voted NAD vaccine exemption guidelines indicate, your Conference and Union PARL directors can help you draft your own request for a religious exemption.

Such accommodations will probably not be justified for positions that involve frequent contact with the public, especially health care positions where contact is had with persons in weakened physical condition or compromised immune systems. The emergency authorization status of the vaccines have really become irrelevant at this point, given their widespread and successful use among hundreds of millions of people worldwide, a pool vastly larger than any vaccine testing. Indeed, we are likely only a few weeks away from the FDA giving full authorization to the main vaccines at issue.

Moral & Ethical Issues

The moral and ethical issues surrounding required vaccines may be a little more complicated and nuanced than the legal landscape. Many Adventists and Christians bristle at the notion of the imposition or mandate of physical treatments or limitations on people who are not yet sick. Some believe that rights of conscience and religious freedom should be raised in opposition to required vaccinations, whether by employer or by government. It is not unreasonable to seek accommodation from employers where possible, if masking and distancing and testing can keep others safe. But where this is not reasonably possible, it is not fair or right to expose others to enhanced health threats because of your reservations about the vaccine.

Some claim that because vaccinated people can at times transmit the virus, that it is unfair to subject unvaccinated people to limitations beyond that of the vaccinated. But this is to overlook some important differences between the two groups. Vaccinated people are far less likely to become infected in the first place, and if infected, far less likely to develop symptoms that would help spread the infection. That is why about 97% of hospitalizations for Covid nationwide are among the unvaccinated (5). Further, the viral load of vaccinated people, while similar for a short period of time as the unvaccinated, tapers off far more rapidly, making them infectious for shorter periods of time (6). Remember, there are no 100% preventatives, either natural or vaccine, but there are things we can do to minimize infections and transmissions. Using both natural preventive measures and vaccines gives us the optimal outcomes, which protects the most people.

Conscience & History

Neither Adventist nor Protestants more generally have believed that religious freedom is an absolute right. Religious freedom is not exempt from the limits on rights generally, that your rights end where your neighbors’ physical health, safety or well-being begins. Some would connect this principle of limits with the harm principle made famous by John Stuart Mill. But really it has roots in western Christian thought going back to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Paul, who both wrote about the importance of love for one’s neighbors (7), which is specifically connected to doing them no “wrong” or “harm.” (8) When Christ sent the healed lepers to be declared clean by the priests, he endorsed the quarantine system that the Jews had inherited from Old Testament law. In that system, those that exposed, or potentially could expose, the community to risk of physical infection had their freedom of movement and access to society curtailed. (9)

Martin Luther, leading founder of Protestantism, and modern framer of the Priesthood of All Believers and the rights of conscience, actually had to face the issue of pandemics, quarantines, and medicines in his own day. As he lived through a plague in his own day, he wrote the following guidance, which Christians might find useful today:

“Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. … See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” LW 43:131–32.

Martin Luther understood the difference between faith and presumption, as well as genuine issues of conscience as opposed to legitimate public health regulations. Among our own Adventist pioneers, there were some conflicting responses to the question of required vaccinations, with some viewing it as an imposition on conscience (10). But our most credible and prominent religious liberty source of the late 19th century, the American Sentinel, forerunner of Liberty magazine, stated this difference quite clearly in one of its editorial articles.

It quoted a prominent law professor of the day as follows: “It is settled that the State may compel an unwilling citizen to be vaccinated. But on what ground? No[t] because if he remains unvaccinated, he would be liable to catch the smallpox; nor yet because if he did catch it, he would probably die; but solely because his unvaccinated condition renders him specially liable to become a source of contagion to others." (11) The editors went on to contrast this rare instance of allowable state force in health matters to other instances where my choice would not impact others, such as, most importantly for him, Sabbath and Sunday-keeping.

We do not have a record of anything Ellen White said about required vaccines. (Though she was on record for the use of state law and force to forbid alcohol sale and use, certainly a health-related topic.) But we do know that she came to appreciate the scientific advances in vaccine practices. Both her son as well as her personal Secretary record that she supported the decision of her workers, including her son Willie White, to take the small-pox vaccine. Her secretary wrote that Ellen White took the vaccine herself. This was at a time, mind you, that while vaccines had improved, they were nowhere near as safe and efficacious as they are today. For those interested in exploring this topic further, Merlin Burt has expertly outlined the relevant history of Ellen White’s views and the development of Adventist understanding of vaccines and their role in preventative and public health here:

  • 1) Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).
  • 2) Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922).
  • 3) Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dep’t of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990) (feeding tube); Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995) (drug testing of students).
  • 5)
  • 6)
  • 7) Matt. 22:39; Rom. 13:9.
  • 8) Rom. 13:10.
  • 9) Luke 17:11-14.
  • 10) EJ Waggoner expressed this view in 1902.  (March 6, 1902 EJW, PTUK 157.15).
  • 11) AMS July 9, 1896, page 209.8. Until recently, this quote was attributed to Adventist writer and Religious Liberty advocate A. T. Jones, but recent research has revealed that it was likely authored by of the editors of the American Sentinel magazine, either C.P. Bollman or L.A. Smith. This actually elevates the piece to representing the editorial view of the Sentinel, and thus supports the view that the use of vaccines was a mainstream view in the Adventist religious liberty community at the turn of the 20th century. In mentioning vaccine restrictions, the author was quoting the language of a law professor of the day, James T. Ringgold, whose views on the matter was clearly endorsed, writing immediately  after the quote that "these observation are so apt and the truth stated so evident and the application to Sunday legislation so easy . . ."  The author went on to contrast this rare instance of allowable state force in personal health matters to other instances where individual choice would not impact others, such as, most importantly for him, Sabbath and Sunday-keeping.  The original quotation can be viewed in its larger context at


Nicholas Miller is the Lake Union Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director and a professor at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.