Mississippi is not exactly one of the USA’s highest ranked states for health issues. The state ranks 47th in public health. It ranks 47th in smoking. It ranks 47th in health care quality. At least it’s consistent! Other surveys put Mississippi dead last in healthcare qualitative measurements. Ironically, there’s one health care issue where the state does well – the lack of a Mississippi vaccine exemption for religion has been critical to the state having the highest vaccine uptake rate in the country.
This anomaly has got to be one of the most interesting stories in the vaccine world – the state’s vaccine uptake rates (see Note 1) for MMR (for measles, mumps and rubella), DTaP (for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough), and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines exceed 99.4%. This number far is far beyond the level necessary for the herd effect to protect all individuals in an area. All thanks to a lack of a Mississippi vaccine exemption for religious beliefs.
The high vaccine uptake rate breaks the irony meter for one other reason – Mississippi is one of the country’s most religious states. And the fact that the state does not allow religious exemptions for vaccination of young children seems like it is out of character for the state. Mississippi is one of only three states that disallow religious exemptions to vaccines (California and West Virginia being the other two). And the Mississippi vaccine exemption rules rely upon a simple piece of jurisprudence – parental duties trump parental rights.
As a result of this important concept, Mississippi vaccine exemption rules do not allow for a religious exemption. I know, it is difficult to wrap your mind around Mississippi in this story. But let’s find out why the state has led the way on stopping religious exemptions.
Mississippi vaccine exemption story
In the late 1970s, 6-year-old Chad Brown was denied entrance to the first grade because his father, Dr. Charles Brown, had chosen not to immunize him. Dr. Brown, a chiropractor from Houston, Mississippi, was a strong opponent of vaccines. Brown sued Joe Stone, who represented the Houston Municipal School District. The case, known as Brown v. Stone, worked its way up to the Mississippi Supreme Court, representing a rare moment in U.S. jurisprudence where parental duties trumped parental rights.
When Charles Brown chose not to immunize his son, residents of Mississippi were allowed to exempt their children from vaccination based on their religious beliefs. The religious belief statute provided, among other things, that “a certificate of religious exemption may be offered on behalf of a child by an officer of a church of a recognized denomination.”
Not all religions qualified. The belief statute also stated that the “certificate shall certify that parents or guardians of the child are bona fide members of a recognized denomination whose religious teachings require reliance on prayer or spiritual means of healing.” In other words: faith healers. Charles Brown was a member of the Church of Christ, which did not specifically prohibit the use of modern medicines, including vaccines.
Brown argued that the Mississippi code was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment, which prevented “Congress from making any law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Brown claimed that his personal religious beliefs caused him to reject vaccines—even if the Church of Christ didn’t share his views—and that Mississippi’s religious exemption law had placed one organized religion (faith healers) above another (non-faith healers). He argued that by forcing him to join a different religious group to exempt his son from vaccines, the state of Mississippi had made a law that prohibited his free exercise of religion.
Brown and his lawyers were confident that they would win the case. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead of focusing on the First Amendment as expected, Mississippi Supreme Court justices focused on the 14th Amendment, which states in part that no U.S. citizen “shall be denied equal protection under the law.” In other words, if a parent harbors a religious belief that contradicts a basic tenant of modern medicine, and that belief puts the child in harm’s way, the state has a right to protect the child from the irresponsible acts of the parent.
In Brown v. Stone, the Mississippi justices argued that all parents have a duty to “provide the child with food, clothing, and shelter and to protect the child from preventable exposure to danger, disease, and mortality.” Further, they argued that this duty takes precedence over a religious belief that denies that duty.
Mississippi justices took one more step, arguing that parents claiming a religious exemption to vaccination were making a decision for other children as well. The justices argued that if they granted Charles Brown the exception that he sought, it “would discriminate against the great majority of children whose parents have no such religious convictions [and] expose [these other children] to the hazard of associating in school with children exempted under the religious exemption…”
In 1979, the state of Mississippi argued that children whose parents hold ill-founded and potentially dangerous beliefs—whether cloaked in the robes of religion or not—shouldn’t be afforded less protection under the law. In essence, they argued that although parents can determine how a child lives, they can’t determine whether the child has the right to a life unhindered by preventable diseases.
The upshot? High Mississippi vaccine uptake rate
The State of Mississippi, and the courts agreed, that the parent’s rights to raising their children in the way they want does not include a nonexistent “right” to put their children in harm’s way by avoiding vaccines. Moreover, claiming that a religion is against vaccines, which is generally not true, is certainly even less of a reason to allow for a religious vaccine exemption.
The Mississippi vaccine exemption rules are one of the most restrictive in the country. California’s SB277, which eliminated personal belief exemptions like religious ones, is only a year or so old. Think about that – California followed Mississippi on this one health care policy.
But this goes beyond religion. The father of the child was a chiropractor, a pseudoscience that is often opposed to vaccines for unscientific reasons. He really didn’t have an authentic religious reason for not vaccinating his child. And the Mississippi courts decided that protecting the child from deadly diseases is more important than religious beliefs.
I wish more states followed the Mississippi vaccine exemption rules for religious reasons. The state makes it rather simple – religious exemptions for vaccines are not allowed. Sadly for children’s health, parents are abusing these rules across the country. It used to happen in California, but SB277 stopped that abuse right in its tracks.
Children have the right to be protected from vaccine preventable diseases, and ignorant parental beliefs should not take precedence over the child’s health. And Mississippi, despite their rankings on health, got this one health care issue right (see Note 2).
- The vaccine uptake rate is defined as the percentage of a population in an age range that receives a particular vaccine.
- Do not get me wrong – Mississippi gets this vaccine exemption policy right. But they’ve got some serious issues on healthcare, race relations (they’ve got the traitorous Confederate flag on the state flag), education, environment, and so many other things. They’ve got some work to do before I give the state a ringing endorsement on anything but vaccines.