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Home » Court decides parent’s refusal to vaccinate kids is not “free exercise of religion”

Court decides parent’s refusal to vaccinate kids is not “free exercise of religion”

©, 2012
©, 2012

For New Year’s Day, I’m republishing the top 10 articles I wrote in 2013. Well, actually top 9, plus 1 from 2012 that just keeps going.

#9. This article was published on 13 May 2013, and has had over 5000 views. A Federal court decided that refusing to vaccinate one’s children is not a constitutionally protected right covered by the First Amendment. 

The US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has ruled (pdf) that a parent’s refusal to vaccinate her children against diseases is not a “free exercise” of religion, and is tantamount to neglect.


In April 2010,  the Tuscarawas County (Ohio) Jobs and Family Services (TCJFS) took custody of the children of Charity and Brock Schenker as a result of a domestic violence matter between the parents. TCJFS determined that the children were “neglected and dependent” and worked out case plans for the parents which included psychiatric evaluations, drug testing and supervised visitation of their children. When TCJFS asked about the children’s immunizations, according to Secular News Daily, “Mrs. Schenker claimed she had religious objections to immunizations. The court informed her that the immunizations would be ordered.”

As a result of recommendations of court-ordered psychiatric evaluations and positive random drug tests, Mrs. Schenker (who subsequently divorced her husband) visitations were terminated, and TCJFS filed a motion for permanent custody of her children in August 2011. According to the Secular News Daily, “the county laid out as evidence a number of instances in which Schenker did not comply with orders, refused home inspections, and more. But Schenker sued with eight claims, including conspiracy claims and, most significantly, claims that her First Amendment right to free expression of religion was violated.”

In its decision (pdf), the District Court wrote that that the “Plaintiff further alleges the juvenile court violated her First Amendment rights by ordering that her children be vaccinated. She claim she objected to the inoculations on religious grounds.” The court then stated that “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” and is applicable to the States by virtue of its incorporation by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The court then went on to say that, “the mere assertion of a religious belief . . . does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections. It has long been recognized that local authorities may constitutionally mandate vaccinations. Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) (affirming guilty judgment in prosecution under state compulsory vaccination law, noting that “[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own … regardless of the injury that may be done to others”).”  The court also cited Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), strongly stating that, “The right to practice religion freely does not include parental liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease (emphasis mine).”

Finally, the court wrote that, “although some states have chosen to provide a religious exemption from compulsory immunization, a state need not do so.” In Sherr v. Northport–East Northport Union Free Sch. Dist. (1987), a New York court stated that (“[I]t has been settled law for many years that claims of religious freedom must give way [to] the compelling interest of society in fighting … contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs.”).

The court wrapped up its decision that “the decision to require Plaintiff’s children to be vaccinated while they were in foster care, did not violate Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” 

The District Court dismissed Schenker’s claims in full, including the “free exercise of religion” claim, and permanent custody was granted to the county. The vaccination issue was not the only reason that permanent custody was granted, but was a contributing factor.

So, let’s make this clear. The United States Constitution does not give vaccine deniers some religious protection to exempt their kids from being vaccinated. Now, the Supreme Court of the United States, which, in case someone has failed their civics class, has the power, through judicial review, to interpret the constitution, and they have, through the two cases mentioned above, given the power to the state to protect the citizens from communicable states which supersedes religious “liberties.” Good for vaccines. Good for children. Good for the community health.

Vaccines Save Lives.

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Michael Simpson

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