Florida vaccine laws – court says church school can ban unvaccinated kids

On 27 June 2017, in a Florida vaccine laws case, a Florida Court of Appeals – The District Court of Appeal of the First District – rejected Patrick Flynn’s appeal against a lower court decision that found that a Catholic diocese had a constitutional right to exclude unvaccinated children if its interpretation of religious law supports doing so. The Court affirmed that the church autonomy doctrine, under which the state will not interfere in a church’s interpretation of religious law, prevents application of state vaccination law to this case.

From a public health perspective, this is a good news/bad news case. On one hand, the case made it clear there is no constitutional right to a religious exemption, and allowed religious private schools to reject non-vaccinated students when that rejection is religiously motivated. On the other hand, it also made it clear that other private schools cannot, under Florida law, reject unvaccinated students if their parents file a religious exemption, and neither can religious schools when their policy is based on secular reasons.

Florida vaccine laws – the case

Patrick Flynn is a Catholic father of eight. All his children were educated in Catholic schools in the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida (“The Diocese”). At some point of his life he decided that vaccinating was against his religious beliefs, and began providing a letter expressing his religious objection to vaccine, to fulfill the requirements of Florida’s religious exemption.

After accepting religious exemptions for years, the Diocese, through its leader, Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estévez, decided not to accept them anymore, starting with the 2015-2016 school year. The court decision (pdf) explained that

Bishop Estevez’s legal position as Bishop is that immunizations of children attending Catholic schools is an issue of faith, discipline, and Catholicism which can only properly be determined by the church and not by the civil courts.

The Diocese did not point to any specific tenet that supported its position on immunization – in fact, it did not provide any materials that explained its previous position that allowed exempt children in or its current position that refused them. It did state the basis of its opposition was religious.

Mr. Flynn’s youngest son has just finished Kindergarten in 2015. Mr. Flynn submitted a letter of religious exemption, but under the new policy was refused admission to the school unless his parents vaccinate him.

Naturally, his family was unhappy. The father opened a GoFundMe campaign, and sued the Diocese, first in the trial court and after losing the case there, appealed.

The basis for his appeal was the claim that under Florida’s statute about religious exemptions, that says:

“that immunization requirements do not apply if “[t]he parent of the child objects in writing that the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices.” § 1003.22(5), Fla. Stat.” (opinion, p. 4)

Private schools have to accept religious exemptions, and cannot reject unimmunized children exempt under them.

The Ruling

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, which basically held that when the church’s constitutional right conflicts with a parent’s legal right to an exemption, the constitutional right trumps. There were three slightly different decisions in the appeal court (pdf).

Judge Makar wrote the main opinion. It basically said:

  1. The church autonomy doctrine prevents civil courts from deciding matters that involve those courts in theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical governance, or conformity with moral standards set by the church – on those issues, the courts will defer to the highest ecclestial authority. The doctrine is ground in Article I of the United States constitution – both the free exercise clause (it protects churches’ freedom of religion) and the establishment clause (by preventing excessive government entanglement with religion). It gives churches a constitutional right to autonomy.
  2. In Florida, it’s a jurisdictional bar. That means that when a matter that involves one of the issues above – for example, here, stepping into a theological controversy – comes before a court, a court does not have jurisdiction over the issue and may not hear it.
  3. There are limits on the application of the doctrine when it comes to clearly neutral laws that do not require deciding secular matter, but they do not apply here (said with caution by the main opinion, less carefully by the other opinions).
  4. Neutral state laws requiring immunization are constitutionally valid even without a religious exemption. This means that the right to a religious exemption here is created by statute – Mr. Flynn does not have a constitutional right to a religious exemption from the school mandate.
  5. Here, we have a religious debate on immunization. Mr. Flynn is asking the courts to prefer his religious exemption over the Diocese’s – directly to step into a religious disagreement. In the Court’s words:

    “The Diocese has a religiously-based immunization policy with which one of its members disagrees; Mr. Flynn seeks the power of the State to compel the Diocese to depart from its point-of-view and admit his non-immunized son. But doing so would further his own religious views at the expense of the Diocese’s on the topic of immunizations. We are convinced that a secular court should not be making the judgment as to which side’s religious view of immunization is to be respected.” 

  6. Immunization is a basis for religious debates as well as secular ones, which is why most jurisdictions offer a religious exemptions. So this can fairly be seen as a religious debate between the parties, and courts should not step in. That is even more clearly the case here. This is a case where the church autonomy doctrine is in full force.
  7. Mr. Flynn complains that the Diocese did not provide an explanation – but under the jurisprudence of Florida’s courts, private people do not have to explain their religious objections, just state that they have one, and it’s unfair for Mr. Flynn to demand more  from the Diocese than a private person would have to give.

    In the Court’s words:

    Courts are in no more of a position to compel the Diocese to provide a sufficient quantum of passable proof that its view of immunization is consistent with the Catholic faith than to do so as to Mr. Flynn’s personal views of Catholic doctrine on the very same subject. … Mr. Flynn points out that he has no duty to prove that his objection is religious, citing Curry, yet he insists that the Diocese must provide adequate proof that sufficiently grounds its religious viewpoint in specific church tenets. We can’t help but note the incongruity of giving primacy to a parishioner’s religious viewpoint that is contrary to that of his mother-church on the same topic; respectfully, it would be an odd role reversal—a devotee’s tail wagging the corpus of church leadership—to do so.

  8. Even more generally, “the Catholic Church’s governance of its parochial schools is inherently religious, its obvious mission being the transmission of its religious values,” so courts are careful not to interfere in such religious governance.

In short, the statutory right to send a child unvaccinated to any school the parent wants has to give way before the constitutional right of a church to autonomy.

Judge Bilbrey joined the opinion, making it the majority opinion, but added a concurrence – an opinion in agreement that makes additional point – of his own. He wanted to make it clear that the focus here isn’t that it was a dispute between a Catholic member of the Diocese and the Diocese itself. He explained:

All that is required for application of the doctrine is for a church or ecclesiastical body to take a position on religious grounds; it matters not that the opponent of the church have a religious basis in opposition. As Judge Makar observes, “the Catholic’s Church governance of its parochial schools is inherently religious, its obvious mission being the transmission of religious values. . . .” (Maj. Op. at 21). In my view, that is all that is needed in order to invoke the “church autonomy doctrine.””

Judge Kelsey agreed with the result, but offered a different reasoning. Since his reasoning is not the majority, I’ll just say shortly that he analyzed the theology and found that the church’s position was based in valid religious principles, and courts should not get caught in the religious debate between the Diocese and its believer, under the church autonomy doctrine.

Florida vaccine laws conclusion

This decision means that religious private schools in Florida that refuse to accept unimmunized children on religious grounds are constitutionally protected from having to accept religious exemptions. In that, it protects the right of these schools to require immunization (and protect their pupils – and the community – from outbreaks).

Note the limits, though. This applies only to religious schools; the court made it clear that the law requires private schools, generally, to accept religious exemptions. Private schools that are not religious cannot refuse unimmunized children if their parents file a religious exemption – and the parents don’t even have to explain their religious objections, making it very easy for parents whose opposition is not religious to use this exemption.

Religious schools, too, cannot refuse unvaccinated children unless their reasons are religious. A question arises whether that could incentivize such a school concerned about outbreaks to cloak a secular reason to refuse unvaccinated children in religious language – and whether incentivizing people and religious schools to present secular objections as religious is good public policy.

Nonetheless, upholding the fact that the constitution does not require a religious exemption from immunization requirements, and allowing Catholic schools to keep their schools safe by refusing unimmunized children, do help protect the public from disease.

Anti-science legislation – state level activities are troubling

anti-science legislation

We have seen a lot of anti-science activities at the Federal government level that are scary. Massive reductions in Federal budgets for the EPA and National Institutes of Health are bad enough for those of us who support science research and education. But the emboldened right wing, at the state level, are pushing all types of anti-science legislation that will have a profound effect on how we teach science to our children. We need to pay attention to this.

I thought it would be beneficial for us to take a look at the states that are pushing anti-science legislation since the November 2016 election, when a lot of state legislatures’ composition changed (or remained the same). In general, this legislation focuses on anti-evolution and anti-climate change beliefs pushed by the right wing.

Continue reading “Anti-science legislation – state level activities are troubling”

Vaccine lawsuits – overview of litigation across the USA

vaccine lawsuits

The goal of this overview is to tell you about vaccine lawsuits in the federal and state courts (but not in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program). As an overview, the discussion of each case will be very short. If you want more information, please let me know in the comments section. If you know of cases I have missed, also mention that in the comments.

The vaccine lawsuits overview is arranged by topic, and without topic by states, and within states in alphabetical order. I have chosen August 1, 2016 as a starting point to keep this manageable.

Note that the “claims” section provides a summary of what a complaint is claiming – what it is trying to do – and not an analysis of the claims’ validity. Where available, I link to a post discussing the claim’s merits more in detail. Where not, I add some comments about the validity. But the claims section just provides what the plaintiffs are claiming – it doesn’t mean their claims, hold water. Continue reading “Vaccine lawsuits – overview of litigation across the USA”

Consequences of not vaccinating–Report 5

A baby died in Florida from whooping cough (Bordetella pertussis) last week. According to the report, “officials said the family chose not to vaccinate their child. Some parents are choosing not to fully vaccinate their children because they worry there is a link between the vaccinations and autism.” Of course, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Let’s place the blame for this death right where it belongs, right at the feet of  MrAndy Wakefield, the de-licensed physician, who caused the drop in MMR vaccine uptake through his fraudulent claim that MMR caused autism. Wakefield is a horrible excuse for a human being, and probably should take responsibility for this and many other deaths that resulted from his fraudulent and retracted study claiming that vaccines cause autism.

Parents have a moral obligation to vaccinate their children.

We have a moral responsibility for the health of our children and this has to dominate any other belief systems we hold. Even worse, by not vaccinating children, we are putting other people’s children at risk, as well as our own. If another child dies of measles, or whooping cough, or meningitis, and was infected by our own, non-vaccinated child, are we partly responsible?

And they should start by ignoring Wakefield’s lies. Because vaccines would have saved this baby’s life.

 

Use the Science-based Vaccine Search Engine.

Key citations:

Whooping cough outbreak in South Florida

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is reporting about a whooping cough (pertussis) outbreak in South Florida area.  There have been other outbreaks reported in Wisconsin, Washington state, Illinois, British Columbia, England, and Australia.  This upsurge in whooping cough cases can mostly be blamed on falling vaccination rates and the lack of booster vaccinations in adults.  Importantly, whooping cough can be prevented, with almost no risk, with a DaTP vaccine. Continue reading “Whooping cough outbreak in South Florida”

Chickenpox outbreak in Florida

According to Vaccine News Daily, Chickenpox spreads to five Fla. public schools, the chickenpox (Varicella zoster) outbreak in Florida is increasing in size:

Health officials in Florida added 25 students who are not vaccinated against chickenpox to a list of those barred from attending class in five public schools in High Springs and Alachua on Wednesday.

There have been 65 cases of chickenpox reported in the northwest part of Alachua County, prompting the health department to prohibit unvaccinated students from attending the Alachua Learning Center.

Continue reading “Chickenpox outbreak in Florida”