As a chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation in central New York State, I field a lot of phone calls. Most of them fall into one of three categories: “Where can I find raw milk?”; “Where can I buy Wise Traditions foods?”; and “Do you have a group that meets?” But one phone call in late August 2019 was different, and my first reaction was a slight sinking sensation. When a Mennonite-inflected voice asked, “What can we do to protect our school children from the new vaccination law?”, I didn’t have a ready-made answer.
I was well aware of the egregious new law, which ended the vaccine religious exemption for children in all public, private and parochial schools at all levels—from day care through secondary school. The law required all New York school children not already vaccinated to begin receiving all required vaccinations by the beginning of the 2019 school year and to complete them by the end of the school year.1 Medical exemptions, while still legal, were already notoriously difficult to obtain even before the law’s passage.
Personally, I found the law outrageous on many levels—raising concerns about health, personal and parental autonomy, and religious freedom—but it was now the law. What was I going to say to my caller, a man I’ll call “Amos Weaver”? I said the only thing I could, which was that I had no answers for him but would do whatever I could to help him find a way forward. And thus began a most interesting journey.
Although it might seem like a straightforward decision—vaccinate or don’t vaccinate— my conversations with Mr. Weaver soon began to reveal layers of complexity in the situation, and I became fascinated by the interlocking issues involved. Whereas state government is large and the across-the-board vaccine law it is imposing is impersonal, Mr. Weaver’s Mennonite community is small and makes decisions following thoughtful discussion within the group. Let’s look at three issues raised by this law through the lens of this small Mennonite community.
MENNONITE SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION
Amish and Mennonite schools are vastly different from the schools most Americans are familiar with. Rural Mennonite schools are typically one-room structures. The school for which Mr. Weaver serves as a school board member has twenty-five students of various grade levels. There are no laptops or screens in these schools, but there is solid education in the basics, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. The education is primarily focused on the practical skills and knowledge that most of the students will need when they engage in future activities such as farming and small business.
Because Mennonite families are frequently large, the students in one school may be drawn from just four or five families. Schools are often located on back roads or farm paths and can be hard to recognize and difficult for an outsider to find. Because of that, estimates of the number of Amish and Mennonite schools in New York State vary. Some Internet sources suggest that there are between twenty-five and twenty-nine Mennonite schools and forty-five Amish schools in the entire state,2 but Mr. Weaver’s (likely more realistic) estimate is a combined total of fifty Amish and Mennonite schools in central New York alone, with many more in other areas of the state.3
Crucially, Mennonite schools do not accept government funds. This means that they are currently not subject to the government’s education regulations and oversight, such as those pertaining to curriculum requirements. As we will see, however, the vaccine law poses a potential threat to that independence.
What options are open to Mr. Weaver’s school? One possibility would be simply to comply with the law and require vaccinations for all children who attend the school. However, the vaccine law has an interesting twist, putting school administrators in the position of ensuring compliance with the law in their schools. That would mean that Mr. Weaver and his colleagues would be in charge of making sure their neighbors and fellow church members vaccinate their children—even those who have moral or health-related objections to vaccines. As Mr. Weaver said, “We’re not going to force anyone to do something they don’t want to do.”
A second option would be to homeschool the children, and at first glance, this seems to be the most logical choice. Because many Mennonite families farm or have small businesses close to home, teaching children at home could be quite feasible. But when I spoke with Mr. Weaver, he was very clear that having students attend the Mennonite schools is the preferred choice. When I asked why, the answer took me by surprise. “Because,” he said, “being in school gives the children an opportunity to relate to a different authority.”
I admitted to being mystified by that response and asked him to elaborate. He explained that in life, we all need to learn how to navigate various levels of authority. At home, children learn to relate to their parents’ authority, but at school they have the opportunity to relate to a different authority. This learning process continues throughout life. Homeschooling would deprive students from engaging in this process at school. (I doubt that our public-school teachers and administrators have ever entertained such an idea, but perhaps they should!) Homeschooling would also limit social interaction and lead to greater government scrutiny of teachers and grades.
The third option for dealing with the novel situation would be simply to continue as usual: hold classes at their school, accept children both vaccinated and unvaccinated and continue peacefully with the job at hand. This could be termed passive resistance, with which Mennonites have a long familiarity.
On the other hand, the options open to the state government are stark, particularly when confronted by schools that choose passive resistance. Possible scenarios include:
1. The state does nothing, which sets a precedent for other schools (not Mennonite or Amish).
2. The state imposes fines, which the school just does not pay.
3. The state tries to use force—such as forced school closure—which results in very embarrassing media coverage and could even lead to a court case that nullifies the law.
Compounding these problems for the state is some apparent quiet support by local communities for Mennonites in their area. In Yates County in the Finger Lakes region of New York, local government agencies such as the public health department and others have declined requests from local media outlets to contact Mennonite school administrators about this issue, citing concerns that the trust they have built slowly and carefully over the years with Mennonite communities could be jeopardized.4
Local officials support the law and are working hard to vaccinate as many school children as they can, but some are uncertain about the outcome. Yates County public health deputy director Sara Christensen commented: “We’re going to have more vaccinated kids.” She continued, “But we also know there’s going to be Mennonite children who aren’t vaccinated but their families want them to go to school. At that point, it’s up to the school director. Will they enforce compliance? I have to say I’m not sure.”4
REAL HEALTH AND REAL IMMUNITY
What constitutes real health? Is it merely the absence of disease? Is it only the presence of a vaccine in the bloodstream? Or is it the presence of things of much greater value? Many individuals have found that key components of health include not just physical well-being but also faith and spiritual well-being, connection to a supportive community and mental stability.
Mr. Weaver’s viewpoint regarding vaccines and health underwent a change about fifteen years ago when he and his wife did what most Mennonite families routinely did at the time: take their new baby to the doctor for the “baby shot” (vaccines). In this instance, the local doctor hesitated for a moment before asking the Weavers if they really wanted the shot, explaining that tissue from an aborted fetus was used in the preparation of some of the vaccines. The answer was a firm “no.”
With very few exceptions, Mennonite children of Mr. Weaver’s acquaintance, vaccinated or not, generally enjoy robust good health. They eat almost entirely foods from their own farms and gardens, and a majority of that food is organically grown. They drink raw milk. (Mr. Weaver is a dairy farmer of long experience, who had the privilege of working and learning alongside renowned dairy consultant Jerry Brunetti for several years.) Most Mennonite children experience plenty of time outdoors and have less exposure to artificial light. There are occasional cases of chickenpox, which cause no alarm; in fact, some parents try to expose their children so they will get the disease over with when young. Measles and whooping cough are very rare.
I asked, “What about herd immunity?”— the idea that to protect everyone, including the most vulnerable, one must vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated. “Vaccines don’t supply herd immunity,” Mr. Weaver replied, “it’s good real food and raw milk that build immunity. You’re vaccinating yourself with raw milk!” He added that it’s the same with plants. If a plant isn’t thriving, you need to build the soil and supply the minerals the plant needs, rather than reach for soil-toxic fertilizers or insecticides.
Although seemingly separate, raw milk and vaccinations are in essence paired issues. Each provokes intense passions on both sides, and both reflect two very different world views. One viewpoint sees raw milk as dangerous and vaccines as the safe, scientific way to ensure immunity to disease. Concerns about ethical issues or toxic ingredients in vaccines are viewed as secondary to the goal of minimizing the risk of certain diseases. Individuals who espouse the other point of view—the one articulated by Mr. Weaver—believe that drinking raw milk from healthy cows and eating nutrient-dense foods (including plenty of good animal fats) promotes health and strengthens natural immunity. As a result, there is less need for vaccines, which are not only accompanied by moral dilemmas and toxic ingredients but also may even alter the integrity of the human immune system.
THE VACCINE RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION
On May 15, 1972, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled seven to zero that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional when applied to the Amish because it violated their rights under the First Amendment, which guarantees the free exercise of religion.5 This ruling is extremely important to Plain (Amish and Mennonite) communities.
Thus, these communities regard New York’s repeal of the religious exemption to vaccinations with real alarm, and it is an issue that raises strong concerns in Mr. Weaver’s Mennonite community. These communities realize that the revocation of the religious exemption is just the beginning of a process that could lead to the state imposing other regulations on Amish and Mennonite schools.
Let us imagine for a moment a situation where the religious exemption has not been eliminated. Why would some Mennonite communities want to have a religious exemption to vaccinations for their children? What is the connection between vaccines and Mennonite religious belief? Although all Mennonites are Christian, their lifestyles and choices can be quite diverse.
At one end of the spectrum are very conservative groups who may appear similar to Old Order Amish, using horse and buggy for transportation, wearing distinctive clothing and rejecting most modern technology. At the other end are Mennonites whose clothing, transportation and use of technology are virtually indistinguishable from mainstream Protestant churchgoers. Even so, it is probably safe to say that most Mennonites harbor some questions, concerns or doubts about the ethics of vaccine use.
The Brotherhood Medical Advocate of the Mennonite Church Conference of Washington County, Maryland, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, issued a helpful booklet in 2012 entitled “Vaccine Issues” to provide guidance and to provoke further discussion around the topic of ethical and non-ethical vaccines and their use. This sensitively-written document covered a wide range of issues—including vaccine production methods, the use of fetal tissue in the preparation of some vaccines, abortion and its connection to vaccine production, the ethics of vaccines for venereal disease, moral issues and Bible scripture, ethical vaccine products available for some diseases (but not for others), pros and cons of health considerations and more. It would be hard to read this document and not come away with the conclusion that Mennonite objections to compulsory vaccination of school children are real and deeply connected with their religious understanding and moral conviction. The last paragraph of “Vaccine Issues” also contained a prescient warning. Encouraging church members not to accept free vaccinations from the state or state-funded clinics, it concluded: “We want to accept personal responsibility for our own. We also want to avoid being entangled with the state should morally questionable vaccines be required.”6
That situation has now come to pass.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
For each of these three issues—education, health and the religious exemption—we can see how imposing compulsory vaccination could precipitate changes in the traditional culture of Mennonite communities. Some of the changes would undoubtedly be subtle, but others perhaps would not be so subtle. Modification of the educational process, for example, might affect how children learn to relate to authority or could impose state regulations that infringe on school autonomy. Would there also be an impact on how community members view health, shifting from a perspective of compassion and common sense to blind adherence to corporate medical science? Legal challenges could bring their own set of impacts, including the imposition of fines, forced school closures or other effects that slowly but surely would begin to undermine a culture with traditions that span centuries. In short, there’s a whole lot more to understand—and a lot more at stake—than just “vaccinate your kids.”
Which of the three options did Amos Weaver’s community choose? Perhaps Mr. Weaver put it best when he said they would “take it calm and steady, not get too excited.” As of mid-January 2020, Mr. Weaver’s school is in session and functioning normally. Mr. Weaver received some forms from state officials to fill out regarding each student’s vaccination status. He filled those out to the best of his ability. For students who were not fully vaccinated, he reported them as “in progress.” So far, he has heard nothing else from the state. He mentioned that a school further north is in a similar situation. In their case, local authorities have mentioned fines, but the school has remained firm about its decision not to require vaccinations. It seems that the local authorities have backed off—for now.
1. “Vaccination requirements applicable to all students.” https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2170/docs/vaccine_requirements_faq.pdf.
2. “Amish schools in New York.” https://www.noodle.com/schools/ny_location/amish_religion.
3. Personal communication with “Amos Weaver,” October 2019.
4. Dahlberg B. Repeal of religious exemption to vaccines hits hurdle in rural Finger Lakes. WSKG, Sep. 3, 2019. https://wskg.org/news/repeal-of-religious-exemption-to-vaccines-hits-hurdle-in-rural-finger-lakes/.
5. Wisconsin v. Yoder. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Wisconsin-v-Yoder.
6. “Vaccine Issues.” Brotherhood Medical Advocate, Mennonite Church Conference, December 2012.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020