Immunization rates among school-aged children have dropped significantly in the last two decades. The decline is directly attributable to the misguided fears about the safety of vaccinations, a belief started by thoroughly debunked research which linked vaccines to the rise in autism. Schools have always required children to be up to date on their vaccinations when enrolling. Exemptions are allowed for those with documented medical reasons, as well as religious beliefs. While these exemptions are still rare, the increase in religious (and in some states personal belief) exemptions have led to a precipitous decline in vaccinated children.
It has also led to a public health crisis of major outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.
The New York City Department of Education has one of the strictest exemptions policies in the nation. While it does allow for medical and religious opt-outs, both require specific documentation. In the case of religious exemptions, parents are required to give a detailed explanation, including the specific religious principles which support their objection to vaccinations. Even if approved, the granting of these exemptions comes with a caveat. If there is a case of a child contracting a vaccine preventable disease, all non-vaccinated children are prevented from attending school until it is determined the threat of exposure has been eliminated. This can mean a student can be kept out of school for up to a month at a time.
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This policy is credited for reducing the spread of the recent measles in one community during an outbreak that occurred from February through April of this year.
During that time, 25 people contracted the disease, including two children. One of the children was home schooled. The child’s sibling, who attended public school and had a religious exemption, was prevented by city health officials from going to school. The second child also contracted measles. By keeping the second child away from school, the disease was prevented from spreading in the community.
Three families decided to challenge the New York City law when their children were required to remain home. Two of the families, whose children had to remain home during a chicken pox outbreak, claimed the policy violated their First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection. A third parent sued after her medical and religious exemptions were rejected. She believed that vaccinations “intoxicated” her child as an infant and that her trust in the Lord would protect her 7-year-old daughter from the disease and pestilence that was propagated by the devil.
This week, a Brooklyn federal judge upheld the policy.
In his ruling, District Judge William Kuntz stated that no constitutional rights were violated by requiring the students to remain home from school. He based his ruling on two cases, including a more than century-old Supreme Court ruling that gave the state broad power when it comes to public health matters. In that case, a man refused a vaccination for small pox and was fined $5 in 1905.
The judge also went further to suggest that the granting of religious exemptions went beyond what is required by the First Amendment. He noted a more recent case, also from the Brooklyn federal court, which held that “the free exercise clause of the First Amendment does not provide a right for religious objectors to be exempt from New York’s compulsory inoculation law.” His ruling did not say that the plaintiffs were required to vaccinate their child, however, just that the city was within their rights to enforce the policy.
The policy does not prevent the plaintiffs from exercising their religion, nor does it favor one religion over another. However, the state has a duty to protect the public’s health, and preventing non-vaccinated children from attending school when there is a risk of exposure is within the state’s jurisdiction. While the vaccination policy covers both public and private schools, private schools have greater latitude in how they grant exemptions and handle non-vaccinated children.
The mother of the 7-year-old eventually put her daughter in a private school.
The ruling is seen as a blow to the anti-vaccination movement. While New York does not allow for “personal belief” exemptions, states that do are considering reexamining such policies due to the numerous outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases over the past several years. The attorney for the plaintiffs has said they would appeal the ruling and have asked for a rehearing in the Brooklyn court.