Religion ghosts in anti-vax wars: Why do some believers say this is a religious liberty fight?

Religion ghosts in anti-vax wars: Why do some believers say this is a religious liberty fight?

From the start, there have been religion-news hooks in the news coverage of the movement claiming that vaccines against some childhood diseases — measles and others — do more harm than good.

For starters, large communities of Orthodox Jews live in New York City, which all but guarantees coverage by newsrooms that help define what news matters and what news does not. In this case, I think that we are dealing with an important subject — one that editors should assign to teams that include religion-beat professionals.

Here at GetReligion, I have received emails from readers that, in so many words, say: This is what happens when religious traditionalists start shouting “religious liberty” and saying that God wants them to do something crazy.

Let me state right up front: There are church-state implications in some of these cases, with the state claiming the right to force parents to take actions that violate their religious convictions. Then again, people who follow debates about religious liberty know that clashes linked to health, prayer, healing and parental rights are tragically common. Click here to see some GetReligion posts about coverage of cases in which actions based on religious beliefs have been labeled a “clear threat to life and health.”

So let’s go back to the measles wars. Many of the mainstream news reports on this topic have covered many of the science and public health arguments. What’s missing, however, is (a) material about why some religious people believe what they believe and (b) whether decades of U.S. Supreme Court rulings apply to these cases.

Consider, for example, the long, detailed Washington Post story that just ran with this headline: “Meet the New York couple donating millions to the anti-vax movement.” Here’s the overture:

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events — including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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Next on religious-liberty beat: Orthodox Jews organize against their former high schools

Next on religious-liberty beat: Orthodox Jews organize against their former high schools

An important intra-Jewish dispute in the New York City area has been featured in parochial papers like The Forward and The Jewish Week, as well as in mainstream local news outlets, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the PBS-TV “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” broadcast.

What happens next? Follow-up coverage should examine a significant religious liberty angle that’s  been downplayed or omitted in media accounts.

Three years ago, graduates of yeshivas operated by the strict Haredim or so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, including Hasidic groups, founded Young Advocates For Fair Education ( Their legal advisor is Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York City Liberties Union. These Jews complain that their limited high school educations left them ill-equipped to support themselves as adults, and demand that the city and state education departments enforce laws on minimum school standards.

Last year YAFFED organized 52 parents, former students and former teachers to send officials the names of 39 New York City yeshivas where, they contended, boys receive inadequate general education. The officials promised an investigation but no progress has been reported. The campaign gained traction this year with two crackdown bills introduced in the state legislature in January and then in May.

Though state law mandates basic course requirements for religious as well as public schools, Haredi leaders strongly resist change, seeking to perpetuate their traditions and protect youths from secular influences. News accounts indicate politicians go along.

YAFFED Executive Director Naftuli Moster and Johns Hopkins University Professor Seth Kaplan co-wrote an op-ed in the Forward titled “Why Do Jewish Leaders Keep Ignoring Ultra-Orthodox Education Crisis?” They pleaded with non-Orthodox communal organizations like the UJA-Federation of New York to take up the cause.

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