Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the former President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York and a still a board member. Here we talk about the positive impacts of assertive government interventions and social consciousness improving conditions for all, for a sense of normalcy – even blues music(!).
*Interview conducted October 11, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We’re back with Ask Jon. We’ll be talking about the New York state situation with respect to COVID vaccinations and restrictions and public policy. On the other hand, we will be talking about the case in Texas as a comparison. Then we’ll look at the unified situation between a secular humanist point of view and a religious point of view vis-a-vis evidence-based public policy. So with New York State, you went out to an event. What was that event? What were the conditions under which you could attend in the current COVID situation in New York?
Jonathan Engel: Well, my wife and I on Saturday, this past Saturday night, went to a concert at the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, which, as New York is a great place to see a concert. It’s got an occupancy of about 2,000 people, and you can see well from anywhere and the sound is really good. Anyway, we saw a band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, led by Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. If you don’t know them, again, a recommendation, to your readers, they are fantastic blues and soul, and that type of thing – really wonderful show. Whether it was the first time my wife and I had been to a big indoor venue like that, and I wouldn’t have gone at all, except for the fact that they had enforced the rules, which is that you had to show proof of vaccination to get in, so, we got to the front. The first thing they did was checked proof of vaccination, which, for me, is what New York state issues: the Excelsior Pass. But you can bring just your vaccination card, your Centers for Disease Control with that vaccination card. Then they checked my photo ID, my driver’s license against the name that was on my cell phone, or on my Excelsior Pass. So, that was the rule for everyone. They said: If you were under 12, then you had a note to bring a child under 12 to the show and that the child would have to wear a mask throughout the performance.
You didn’t have to wear a mask, otherwise, but you had to show – you had to prove – you were vaccinated to get it. That made me feel a lot more comfortable. I did wear a mask through most of the show. Some other people did. Most people didn’t. But it really made me feel better, and that’s the only way I would go. I’m not going to any venue that doesn’t insist and in New York City; it’s the law, anyway. So, this is the way it is these days here in the city, but it’s really helping us get back to normal. These mandates: You want to go to the show, then you got to show proof of vaccination. That’s saying that if they want to go to the show, they have to get vaccinated. That means a person like me feels comfortable going to a show knowing that I’m sitting around only other vaccinated people.
Of course, I, myself, am vaccinated. I couldn’t have done it, otherwise. So I think that’s really helping us. Right now, also, it’s helping just in general, the city. For example, there is no city mandate that all people work in health care and all people who work in education have to be vaccinated. In the week before that mandate went into effect, the vaccination rate of health care workers in New York City went from 82 percent to 90 percent. So, it is working. Those mandates are indeed working. But there is a cloud on the horizon because there is a lawsuit that has been filed to create a religious exemption and that is in the courts right now. I’m not sure exactly what the status is, but if that were to go through. If the courts were to agree and to say that health care facilities in New York and also schools in New York had to give a religious exemption, it really has the potential to set us back, which is the last thing we need right now.
So we’ll see where that case goes. But right now, you can go out to places. You can go to restaurants, et cetera, but concerts – like I went to Saturday night and for a fantastic show; but you have to prove that you’ve been vaccinated. There are no exceptions. So, we’re doing better. The city’s coming alive a little bit, which is great because that’s what this city is all about. But again, if religion is allowed to, like it does in some other places in this country, the United States, if religion is allowed to sort of take precedence and religious beliefs are going to Trump – pun intended – the ability of us to get back to normal, then we could be in trouble again. So, we’re doing better. It’s looking better. But we have to keep it up, and we have to. Hopefully, again, we have this possibility that a religious exemption will set us back in our ability to go forward and back to some kind of normalcy.
Jacobsen: With regards to the Texas situation, there’s an issue with continual fundamentalist religious, typically Christian, efforts to restrict the rights of individuals on behalf of that larger theological framework. Particularly, these restrictions in the American context for the last half century or 50 years: Focus on women’s bodies. These can focus around autonomy rights. They can focus around individual choice rights. They can focus around freedom of conscience rights. How ever they are framed, the main idea is restriction of women in choice, about reproduction and about their bodies. So, about their long term well-being and their short term choices of well-being, with respect to either of those, how is this case in New York related in terms of Secular Humanism and religious views to the other one?
Engel: What’s going on in Texas is something that is very frightening for a lot of people, obviously, people in this country still remember if they’re old enough. I mean my age or older. A time when Roe v Wade, where in certain states abortion was illegal, certain states it was not. Again, mostly in the Bible Belt, what we call the Bible bBelt, the South through the lower Midwest of this country. So, the question, it’s very much a constitutional question because women in this country have the right to abortion. There are certain guidelines and rules forwithin a certain time. But clearly, this Texas law violates the constitution, as set forth in the case of Roe versus Wade. So, we have, in Texas, now, women fleeing to neighboring states to get abortions because they can’t get one in Texas. That’s endangering their health. That’s endangering their well being. The purpose behind a lot of this is to enshrine religious beliefs in this country. To enshrine religious belief at the detriment of all others, if a person believes that getting an abortion is against their religion, they don’t have to get an abortion. I mean, nobody’s forcing it, that on anyone. But the bottom line is that, the culture and the right wing politics have come together with religion in a way that is dangerous to the United States.
And you see that in New York, “I want a religious exemption to vaccine.” Not everybody who wants a religious exemption is really, really religious. I mean, they can’t go to their holy book and point that, ‘Well, here’s where it says this,’ or, ‘Here’s where it’s bad or something.’ A lot of this has been wound up in this cultural kind of fight that, that essentially it’s not only,, from religion, but also against any sense of the common good. So, you see in Texas religious freedom and religious beliefs have been used to restrict the women’s right to choose. here in New York, there are those who are trying to cripple our ability to come back from the COVID vaccine. Again using religion as an excuse.
But in my view, as an attorney, I see this as being unconstitutional because which religions are going to be prioritized, which religious beliefs? There are a lot of references the the Bible. Certainly, the Christian Bible says nothing about contraception or abortion, but has become a cultural sort of touchstone that that’s my entwined with religion. So that’s my religious beliefs. government can’t be in the business of deciding whose religious beliefs are to be accepted and whose aren’t. So you can have your religious beliefs and you can say, I’m not going to get an abortion because of my religious beliefs. But once you start saying they can’t get an abortion because of my religious beliefs, or I should be able to go work in a hospital even though I haven’t been vaccinated because of my religious beliefs.
Once you start accepting that kind of thing, which again, in my view, is against the Constitution, because what the Constitution permits the free exercise of religion, mandates of the provision of free exercise of religion, it also says that government cannot establish religion. So the idea is that government stays away from the religious business, including, when it comes to decisions about health, when it comes to decisions about health care and vaccinations, government stays out of it with regard to religion. But you can go ahead and practice religion, if you want to. If you really believe that your religion says that you shouldn’t get vaccinated, you don’t have to get vaccinated. Nobody is forcing people to get vaccinated, but you can’t work in a hospital and you can’t work in a school with kids who are under 12 and can’t get vaccinated. This is all reasonable to me, but religious beliefs are being used to chip away at these common sensical health and educational beliefs and systems. That, to me, is what is a tremendous danger here in this country. You see it with the vaccines. You’re seeing it in Texas. By the way, people who are against abortion or frequently against the types of things that lower abortion rates. Because I can tell you from research, because I’ve done research on it that making abortion illegal doesn’t lower abortion rates; it just makes it more dangerous.
Women still get abortions, but they do it, illegally. They do it, as we used to call “back alley abortions.” It becomes unsafe, but it doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop them from abortion. So what happens is that there are a lot of people in this country who want abortion to be illegal. But, are not interested in doing the types of things that actually lower abortion rates, myself as a secular humanist, I want to look at the evidence. I want to look; because again, I once saw a study that looked at a couple of countries where abortion is absolutely illegal in all circumstances in South America and they compare that to a couple of countries in Europe, where abortion is legal and is paid for by government health insurance and the abortion rates are high in the countries where abortion was illegal more than where it’s legal.
So what I’m looking for is an evidence base and determining what’s best for the common good of the people, as a secularist and as a humanist. But we have a lot of religious people who are doing kind of the opposite; that it’s still my religious dogma that should determine what the law is not, not research based evidence. Again, we see that in Texas; and we see that here in New York with the lawsuit looking to create religious exemptions to a vaccine policy that is helping us to get better to get more healthy.
Jacobsen: Jon, as always, thanks so much for your time.
Engel: Well, it’s a pleasure, Scott, as always.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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