Restoring religious vaccine exemptions in Virginia

By Deborah Riffenburgh — The moment a COVID-19 public health emergency was declared in Virginia, all religious exemptions to vaccines became null and void, forcing thousands to choose between following their conscience and obeying the law. Thankfully, two medical freedom bills have been filed in the state to restore the right to opt out of mandated vaccines and reinstate religious freedom. This fight in Virginia is poised to influence the nation. Citizens across the country must be vigilant.


ACTION ALERT: If you live in Virginia, call and/or email your senator and delegate TODAY to voice your concerns. Contact information is included at the close of this article.

Current Virginia state law allows for religious exemptions to vaccinations, provided a religious exemption form is on file with the State, except during a declared public health emergency.

The COVID-19 public health emergency was declared last February, leaving thousands of Virginians with religious exemptions in violation of state law. Parents with strongly held moral convictions who have filed for an exemption for their children are now subject to a Class 1 misdemeanor per code § 32.1-27, punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to 1 year in jail. Civil penalties can also accrue at up to $25,000 per offense.

The law applies to all children, regardless of education status, unless they have a medical exemption signed by a doctor on file with the state. Children can be prohibited from attending public school for not being immunized. Private school and homeschooled children are not exempt from the vaccination requirement—and non-compliance is a crime.

By law, the declared public health emergency triggered the removal of religious exemptions, but there are no COVID-19 vaccines listed on the childhood schedule for currently required vaccines.


This is why two new companion bills have been filed in the Virginia House and Senate, SB1116 and HB2268, to allow for religious exemptions in the event of a mass vaccination order. SB1116 is expected to be heard in committee this Thursday, January 21st. HB2268 may also be heard as early as this week.

The coming mass vaccination order

“There’s no telling what’s coming down the road, so [this bill] would apply to any Virginia-pharma health mandated vaccination for any pandemic. I just want to preserve first amendment religious freedom, in all cases.”

—Sen. Mark J. Peake, R-Lynchburg, SB1116 sponsor

According to the current law, during an epidemic for which a vaccine exists, the State Health Commissioner can mandate a vaccine for all persons; adults and children alike. Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver hasn’t mandated a COVID vaccine yet, but he has promised to, and he has sole legal authority, not the governor. Commissioner Oliver has also publicly stated that he believes the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration could last as long as 2 years. While that emergency exists, there is no room for religious exemptions. 

“Virginians are facing an unprecedented threat to their religious freedoms. If one of these bills doesn’t make it into law, thousands of families who currently have religious exemptions on file are subject to prosecution, fines, and even jail time. This is not a future problem, it’s a problem right now.”

– Bonnie McLean, pro-life activist and concerned Virginia citizen

Opening the door for religious persecution

Religious liberty is not merely the right to personal religious beliefs or to worship in a church. It’s the freedom to live in accordance with one’s core values and principals without government coercion to do otherwise. Free exercise of religion means that all persons are allowed to have faith in God and hold personal religious beliefs, which may or may not be part of an organized religion or established church, without their civil liberties being taken away. Nobody should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.

The majority of religious exemptions in the state of Virginia have been filed by conservative Christian families, many of whom object to certain vaccines because of their connection to abortion. The development, testing, and ingredients of these vaccines directly violate their deeply held moral convictions.

Protection of the right to refuse medical treatment is the duty of the legislature to ensure.

Criminal penalties do the opposite—discriminating against people who have the courage to stand up for their principles. These penalties punish constituents and limit their ability and right to express and practice their religion.

A danger for all Americans

The Virginia Constitution states that every citizen is “equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” and shall not be required to “support any religious worship” or undergo “any religious test whatsoever” to participate in society. The Constitution of the United States affirms these freedoms as well, and was in fact influenced by the Virginia model. Now, once again, Virginia is poised to influence the nation—this time curtailing the religious freedom America was founded upon.

Over the past few years, several states have moved toward tighter restrictions to ensure vaccination compliance. California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia, and Colorado have already eliminated religious exemptions, though homeschooling families have generally been exempted from these requirements.

Virginia is the first state to offer no alternatives. It will likely not be the last.

Freedom of religion in vaccine decision making must be protected by law. HB2268 inserts a religious exemption where it is needed, alongside the existing medical exemption. This is consistent with the childhood vaccination law already in place.

SB1116 and HB2268 are not inventing something new, they are restoring what has existed for decades and is vitally important to Christians across America.

Call to action

SB1116 is expected to be heard in the Senate Education and Health Committee this Thursday, January 21st. Here are the most critical senators to contact at this time. Please ask that they SUPPORT and vote FOR Senate Bill 1116:

  • Senator Louise Lucas: (804) 698-7518,
  • Senator Chap Petersen: (804) 698-7534,
  • Senator Ghazala Hashmi: (804) 698-7510,
  • Senator Lynwood Lewis: (804) 698-7506,
  • Senator John Edwards: (804) 698-7521,
  • Senator Richard Saslaw: (804) 698-7535,
  • Senator Janet Howell: (804) 698-7532,
  • Senator Mamie Locke: (804) 698-7502,
  • Senator George Barker: (804) 698-7539,
  • Senator Siobhan Dunnavant: (804) 698-7512,

It is expected that HB2268 will be referred to the House Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee. The bill could be heard as early as this week, but is not yet scheduled. These are the most important delegates to contact. Ask that they SUPPORT and vote FOR House Bill 2268:

  • Mark Sickles (804) 698-1043,
  • Sam Rasoul (804) 698-1011,
  • Dawn Adams (804) 698-1068,
  • Lashrecse Aird (804) 698-1063,
  • Cliff Hayes (804) 698-1077,
  • Ibraheem Samirah (804) 698-1086,
  • Rodney Willett (804) 698-1073,
  • Marcia Price (804) 698-1095,
  • Karrie Delaney (804) 698-1067,
  • Elizabeth Guzman (804) 698-1031,
  • Bobby Orrock (804) 698-1054,

The Personhood Alliance’s official position on vaccine ethics, which includes sections on bodily integrity, religious freedom, and the right to refuse, can be found here.

To learn more about how the Personhood Alliance stands for human life and human dignity, without exception and without compromise, subscribe to our email list.

Deborah Riffenburgh is the social media coordinator for the Personhood Alliance and has been active in pro-life media for several years. But most importantly, she’s a California mom who is fighting against the lies of our culture and for the protection of every human being without exception.

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