Key point. Restrictions imposed by state law on unvaccinated children attending public schools may not violate parents’ constitutional right of religious freedom.
A federal appeals court ruled that the constitutional right of parents to the free exercise of their religion was not violated by a state law excluding unvaccinated children from public schools under specified circumstances. New York requires that students in the state’s public schools be immunized against various vaccine-preventable illnesses. The New York Public Health Law provides that “no principal, teacher, owner or person in charge of a school shall permit any child to be admitted to such school, or to attend such school, in excess of fourteen days” without a certificate of immunization. The statute provides two exemptions from the immunization mandate. First, a medical exemption is available “if any physician licensed to practice medicine in this state certifies that such immunization may be detrimental to a child’s health.” Second, a religious exemption is available for “children whose parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required.”
Two unrelated parents (the “Plaintiffs A and B”) received religious exemptions for their children. In November 2011 and January 2012, however, the plaintiffs’ children were excluded from school when a fellow student was diagnosed with chicken pox, pursuant to a state regulation that provides, “in the event of an outbreak … of a vaccine-preventable disease in a school, the commissioner, or his or her designee … may order the appropriate school officials to exclude from attendance” students who received exemptions from mandatory vaccination.
Another parent (Plaintiff C) was denied a religious exemption on the ground that her objection to vaccinations was not based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs. The three plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in New York, claiming that their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion had been violated. The court rejected the claims of Plaintiffs A and B that a state regulation permitting school officials to temporarily exclude students who are exempted from the vaccination requirement during an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease was unconstitutional. Defendants moved to dismiss for summary judgment. The court further concluded that Plaintiff C’s views on vaccination were primarily health-related and did not constitute a genuine and sincere religious belief. This plaintiff testified at a hearing that she is Catholic and stated, “How I treat my daughter’s health and her well-being is strictly by the word of God.” She also testified, however, that she believed that vaccination “could hurt my daughter. It could kill her. It could put her into anaphylactic shock. It could cause any number of things.” She further testified that she did not know of any tenets of Catholicism that prohibited vaccinations. The court noted especially that “plaintiff’s testimony that she did not adopt her views opposing vaccination until she believed that immunization jeopardized her daughter’s health is compelling evidence that plaintiff’s refusal to immunize her child is based on medical considerations and not religious beliefs.”
The three plaintiffs appealed, and a federal appeals court affirmed the district court’s conclusions. Plaintiffs A and B argued that the temporary exclusion from school of their children during the chicken pox outbreak unconstitutionally burdened their free exercise of religion. The court disagreed, citing a 1944 ruling by the Supreme Court noting that a parent “cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds. The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). The court concluded: “New York could constitutionally require that all children be vaccinated in order to attend public school. New York law goes beyond what the Constitution requires by allowing an exemption for parents with genuine and sincere religious beliefs. Because the state could bar [these] children from school altogether … the state’s more limited exclusion during an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease is clearly constitutional.”
The court further concluded that since Plaintiff C’s objections to the statute were not religious in nature, she lacked standing to challenge the mandate on religious freedom grounds.
What This Means For Churches:
An increasing number of elementary and secondary public schools have adopted policies requiring the vaccination of students. Many of these policies are based on state law. While religious exemptions are recognized in some states, many exemptions are conditional and, as this case demonstrates, will not always apply. Phillips v. City of New York, 775 F.3d 538 (2nd Cir. 2015).