Appeals Court: Vaccination Requirements Don’t Violate Parents’ Religious Rights

An appeals court ruling on Wednesday determined that New York’s vaccination requirements for public school attendance do not violate the religious liberties of three families involved. The response from the court was to two reasons that families in the state feel compulsory vaccination for school violate their rights, and the court denied both.

For two of the families, this only applies to the right to continue sending children to school, without vaccination, during a disease outbreak. For the third, though, the case settles the state’s right to determine whether a belief against vaccination is a sincerely held religious belief, or simply an opinion.

The case was dismissed from District Court in June, according to the order at that time. All three plaintiffs appealed.

Two of the plaintiffs, Nicole Phillips and Fabian Mendoza, have exemptions to the vaccination requirements due to what they say are sincerely held religious beliefs. Their complaints were the same, though: Each felt his or her children had been improperly excluded from school on the basis of a lack of vaccination. Specifically, when classmates suffered vaccine-preventable diseases, children who had not been vaccinated were asked not to attend school.

In the case of the third plaintiff, however, the complaint was a different one, and is a key concern in vaccine exemptions. Dina Check initially had an exemption for her child, but it was revoked because school officials believed her application was based on health-related beliefs, rather than (possibly) protected religious beliefs. (It should be noted that the lower court, in its decision, referenced cases suggesting that vaccination requirements are outside the bounds of First Amendment religious protections.) Her case was that she felt she’d been denied religious rights through the revocation of exemption.

In an open letter to the public, Check explained that her opposition to vaccination requirements was a religious one, citing medical reasons, including a case of thrush suffered by her daughter in infancy.

In all three cases, however, Reuters says that the appeals court upheld the decision of the lower court. The court maintained that vaccine requirements are not a violation of personal freedoms, and to the parents’ claims that there is evidence of harm done from vaccination, the court disagreed.

That is a determination for the legislature, not the individual objectors.

In the case of Dina Check, the court agreed with school officials, asserting that her case was not based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and upholding the District Court’s dismissal.

To all three plaintiffs, the court expressed that individual rights to liberty do not trump the the state of New York’s goal to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases from spreading in public schools, and upheld the vaccination requirements.

[photo credit: A.Currell]