Court upholds policy denying religious exemptions to vaccines

religious exemptions

In 2014, the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York rejected a claim brought by three plaintiff families against various aspects of New York’s school immunization requirements. The decision did not include any legal innovation: it was completely based on well-established precedent that schools can deny religious exemptions. But it offers a chance to reflect on what that precedent is, why it is in place, and what it means for us.

The take-home point? Our immunization jurisprudence gives states substantial leeway to protect the public health via vaccination requirements, specifically, in this context, by allowing states to decide whether, and under what conditions, to exempt students from school immunization requirements. But states have to actually use that power to achieve anything. By leaving the floor to the passionate, if passionately wrong, anti-vaccine minority, we are allowing them to undermine the right of the rest of us to be free from preventable diseases.

In other words, those who vaccinate need to speak up and make it clear to their elected representatives that they want state law to protect their children – and the community – against outbreaks of preventable diseases. The laws will not enact themselves, and our representatives need to know the public wants this protection, that the public does not want high rates of measles cases or other diseases.

Just like the diseases, anti-vaccine legislative successes, such as maintaining religious exemptions, are preventable. And just like the diseases, doing nothing won’t prevent them. Continue reading “Court upholds policy denying religious exemptions to vaccines”

Anti-vaccine slogan being pushed – close but no cigar

anti-vaccine slogan

A recurrent anti-vaccine slogan that activists use to claim strong immunization mandates should not be passed is “when there’s a risk there must be a choice.” The slogan is wrong generally, and even more wrong in this context. Let’s take a look at it.

Risk and Choices?

Not all risks are equal. And when the risks are clearly bigger on one side than the other states can and do impose requirements that impose the smaller risk while preventing the larger.

For example, each year people are harmed from seatbelts in the United States. But the state mandates them – because they save many more than they harm. The risks are smaller than the benefits.

For example, surgery carries risks. But a court can order life-saving surgery over parental opposition, in appropriate circumstances (e.g., In re Phillip B., 92 Cal. App. 3d 796 (1979) and here). Also, while courts don’t always go this way, a court can order chemotherapy for a child with cancer over parental opposition, although chemotherapy is not risk free.

Antibiotics carry a small risk of an allergic reaction. But a court can legitimately order antibiotics be given to a child with bacterial meningitis. Because the risk on the other side is larger.

So no, there’s not always a choice when there’s a risk. In the case of vaccines, the risks of modern vaccines are very small. The risks of not vaccinating an order of magnitude larger for each vaccine on the schedule, for all children or adults without medical contraindications. The state can require parents to vaccinate their child on that alone. Even more so, since not vaccinating risks not just the child, but others. As said in a Supreme Court case, in words that ring through the decades:

[a parent] cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds. The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death. (See Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166-69 (1944)).

anti-vaccine slogan

 

Mandates?

The above strongly suggests that states can actually require that parents vaccinate their children, period. But in the United States, no state does. States use, instead, the less coercive tool of school immunization requirements.

School immunization requirements without non-medical exemptions tell parents that if they want their child to attend public (or private, in virtually all states) school they need to vaccinate the child. In other words, they give parents a choice between protecting the child from disease and keeping the child at home. It’s not an easy choice for many families that have been scared and misled by anti-vaccine misinformation. Some families may find homeschooling difficult, practically or financially. But it’s not as coercive as criminalizing non-vaccinating or coming to a home with police to vaccinate. It can be a very hard choice, but it is a choice.

Furthermore, a parent that sends an unvaccinated child to school is no longer deciding only for their child. Their child is no longer the only forced to bear the risk of infectious disease. The parent is forcing a risk on other children and their families, as well as on school personnel. First, directly, because the vaccine-deprived, unprotected child is much more likely to get an infectious disease if exposed, and may then transmit it to her peers (or they are too young to vaccinate newborn siblings, as parents pick up their children). Second, less directly – by undermining herd immunity, which reduces the group of protected children and increases that of the susceptible people, non-vaccinating parents are making an outbreak more likely, putting everyone who is not protected at risk. In fact, unvaccinated people in an area with high rates are less at risk than vaccinated people in an area with low ratesHere (pdf) is a list of studies that examine both parts of this issue.

 

Conclusion about the anti-vaccine slogan

No, when there’s a risk there must not always be a choice. When you’re choosing the bigger risk for your child over the smaller risk, the state doesn’t have to allow it. States do, however: they use school immunization mandates rather than direct coercion. Parents have a choice – though they may not like the alternatives. Hard choices are still a choice. More than that: when a parent is choosing for other children and their families, there’s even less justification to give free reign. By using school immunization mandates the state prevents parents from forcing a risk on other people who didn’t choose it.

California SB277 vaccine law preliminary injunction hearing

SB277 vaccine law

Today I attended the hearing for a preliminary injunction in the Whitlow suit, one of the lawsuits against California’s SB277 vaccine law. I arrived early to try and get an impression of the judge, and because I was worried that there would be no room in the court (in the end, everyone who wanted got in). I sat in the court from 11am, and after the courtroom was cleared for lunch break stood in line until it was opened, around 1:15.

Below are my impressions. Since Judge Sabraw ordered that all electronic devices be off during the hearing, and I did not bring a legal pad, I could not take notes, so this is based on my recollections – and I apologize to the lawyers on either side if I misremembered their points. I’ll be happy to be corrected on any details.

In this hearing, the question was whether plaintiffs should get a preliminary injunction, an order putting the SB277 vaccine law on hold until the case is decided.

The standard for a preliminary injunction is a four part standard that looks at:

  1. chances of winning on the merits;
  2. whether there will be irreparable harm to the plaintiffs without the injunction;
  3. how the balance of equities falls – whether the harm to the plaintiffs is larger than the harm to the defendants from granting the injunction;  and
  4. whether an injunction is in the public interest. In the hearing, most of the focus was on the legal merits, though there was some discussion about the potential harm to the plaintiffs.

I admit that my impression was that on almost every issue the state had a better argument, with stronger case law supporting it. However, I am – obviously – a supporter of the SB277 vaccine law, and that may bias my views. It was a long hearing, and I’m no doubt not covering every detail.  Continue reading “California SB277 vaccine law preliminary injunction hearing”

California SB277 lawsuit – updated, but still baseless

California SB277 lawsuit

Note: this article is an update to the baseless California SB277 lawsuit that was written about previously published on 1 May 2016. This article adds substantial new information on some of the activities surrounding the lawsuit. Stay tuned, as this situation is fluid and new information will be posted as it becomes clear. Professor Reiss and I will update as necessary. I will repost the article whenever there’s a significant update to the lawsuit.

A California SB277 lawsuit was filed by Attorney T. Matthew Phillips in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Tamara Buck et al v State of California (pdf), or “Buck.” To remind everyone, SB277 is the California law that removed the personal belief exemption to school immunization requirements.

Although the lawsuit commenced for the plaintiffs is in theory, challenging the new statute, the complaint posted online is poorly drafted. Much of the complaint, especially the first section, does not meet the basic pleading standard in California, which requires “a statement of the facts constituting the cause of action, in ordinary and concise language. “ (CCP § 425.10)

As phrased, the complaint does not make valid legal arguments against the new statute. The complaint demands trial by jury when it is elementary law that the relief requested in the complaint would not entitle the plaintiffs to anything but a trial before a judge. The complaint fails to meet the requirement that the attorney’s signature constitutes a certification that “[t]he claims … are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law.” (CCP § 128.7(b)(2).)

The complaint also contains gross factual errors, which may violate CCP § 128.7(b)(3), though those errors alone, at this stage in the proceedings, probably would not permanently damn the suit in state law at this initial stage. In assessing initial challenges to a complaint, state courts must assume that the factual claims in the complaint are true (not legal conclusions or polemical oratory), even when they are as far-fetched as the ones in this suit.

If the attorneys for the State of California were to demurrer to this complaint (file a motion requesting the court to dismiss the complaint as lacking sufficient grounds), the plaintiffs would probably be given an opportunity to correct the errors. For that reason, and since this post is already too long, I didn’t provide a detailed critique of the complaint’s shortcomings as a legal document.

Frankly, the people who donated money to this suit deserved better. The opposition to SB 277 consists of a minute fraction of California’s citizens. The opposition is misguided, but most of them are sincere in their beliefs and very, very passionate and dedicated to their cause.  Many of them clearly fear vaccines and the new law. I hope the courts will protect the community and children’s health by upholding SB 277 (and to remind everyone, the vaccine-denied children of SB 277 opponents need SB277 as well – they depend on herd immunity to protect them from their parents’ error). But when opponents put their trust in a lawyer, they deserve to have their interests competently and professionally represented. This complaint does not do that.

Of course, the complainants chose the lawyer, and they may have had input into the content of the complaint. They are responsible for that choice. But it is also the lawyer’s responsibility to advise them against making serious mistakes.

It is hard to see much indication that Mr. Phillips gave his clients such advice (unless, of course, advice was offered and rejected). Frankly, the tone of the complaint and the discussion on the complainants’ Facebook page suggests that the content of the complaint was driven by Mr. Phillips or at least supported by him. Continue reading “California SB277 lawsuit – updated, but still baseless”

SB 277 lawsuit – baseless anti-vaccine complaints

There have been several updates to the lawsuit, and subsequently to this article. This article has been republished with the updates. Comments for this article have been closed, but you can comment at the updated version.

An anti-SB 277 lawsuit, Tamara Buck v State of California (hereinafter known as “Buck”) was filed by Attorney T. Matthew Phillips in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. To remind everyone, SB277 is the California law that removed the personal belief exemption to school immunization requirements.

Although the lawsuit commenced for the plaintiffs is in theory, challenging the new statute, the complaint posted online is poorly drafted. Much of the complaint, especially the first section, does not meet the basic pleading standard in California, which requires “a statement of the facts constituting the cause of action, in ordinary and concise language. “ (CCP § 425.10)

As phrased, the complaint does not make valid legal arguments against the new statute. The complaint demands trial by jury when it is elementary law that the relief requested in the complaint would not entitle the plaintiffs to anything but a trial before a judge. The complaint fails to meet the requirement that the attorney’s signature constitutes a certification that “[t]he claims … are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law.” (CCP § 128.7(b)(2).)

The complaint also contains gross factual errors, which may violate CCP § 128.7(b)(3), though those errors alone, at this stage in the proceedings, probably would not permanently damn the suit in state law at this initial stage. In assessing initial challenges to a complaint, state courts must assume that the factual claims in the complaint are true (not legal conclusions or polemical oratory), even when they are as far-fetched as the ones in this suit.

If the attorneys for the State of California were to demurrer to this complaint (file a motion requesting the court to dismiss the complaint as lacking sufficient grounds), the plaintiffs would probably be given an opportunity to correct the errors. For that reason, and since this post is already too long, I didn’t provide a detailed critique of the complaint’s shortcomings as a legal document.

Frankly, the people who donated money to this suit deserved better. The opposition to SB 277 consists of a minute fraction of California’s citizens. The opposition is misguided, but most of them are sincere in their beliefs and very, very passionate and dedicated to their cause.  Many of them clearly fear vaccines and the new law. I hope the courts will protect the community and children’s health by upholding SB 277 (and to remind everyone, the vaccine-denied children of SB 277 opponents need SB277 as well – they depend on herd immunity to protect them from their parents’ error). But when opponents put their trust in a lawyer, they deserve to have their interests competently and professionally represented. This complaint does not do that.

Of course, the complainants chose the lawyer, and they may have had input into the content of the complaint. They are responsible for that choice. But it is also the lawyer’s responsibility to advise them against making serious mistakes.

It is hard to see much indication that Mr. Phillips gave his clients such advice (unless, of course, advice was offered and rejected). Frankly, the tone of the complaint and the discussion on the complainants’ Facebook page suggests that the content of the complaint was driven by Mr. Phillips or at least supported by him. Continue reading “SB 277 lawsuit – baseless anti-vaccine complaints”

Court decides parents’ refusing vaccinations – not “free exercise of religion”

The US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has ruled (pdf)  that a parent’s refusing vaccinations for 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.”

Continue reading “Court decides parents’ refusing vaccinations – not “free exercise of religion””

Allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines – constitutional

It is morally painful when anti-vaccine sentiment goes so far as to put children at risk of disability, suffering and death. But, that is exactly what a letter written by North Carolina attorney and vaccine critic Alan G. Phillips would do. The problem is that in laying out his case against the enactment of legislation that would protect the health and well being of adolescents in New York State he fails to make one.

The New York assembly is considering A497, a bill that would allow adolescents to receive treatment – including allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines for prevention of those infections – against a sexually transmitted disease without their parents’ or guardians’ knowledge or consent. The goal is clearly a laudable one; to insure teenagers don’t leave themselves at risk of sexually transmitted diseases or neglect treating one because they are worried about their parents’ reaction.

Or, sadly, in some instances, because they fear seeking permission to get vaccinated from a parent or family member who may be sexually abusing them. By allowing adolescents to consent to vaccines or other treatment on their own, the bill minimizes the potential for serious harm such as liver cancer (from Hepatitis B), anal cancers or cervical cancer (from HPV infections).

Several other states have passed such laws. They are consistent with long-established laws granting greater decision-making authority to minors with regard to reproductive health and contraception. Phillips disagrees. He sent a letter to NY State legislators arguing that the bill violates federal and state laws and should not be enacted. Not so. Here is why. Contrary to his claims: Continue reading “Allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines – constitutional”

Parents, children, loss of custody and immunization

This article uses the very recent decision of the Supreme Court of Oregon in Department of Human Services v. S.M. (pdf) to discuss a specific question: if parents lose custody of their children, can they still refuse immunizations? The Oregon Supreme Court joins others in saying that the answer is no. As discussed, this is the right result.

Loss of custody and immunization is a key issue of parental rights on several levels. Let’s discuss the case in Oregon in detail

Continue reading “Parents, children, loss of custody and immunization”

Father sues New York to obtain religious vaccination exemption for son

vax-jesus-doctorAccording to the New York Daily News, a Staten Island father has sued the City and State of New York to block his four year old son from being tossed out of school because their parents refuse to vaccinate him:

A Staten Island father is suing the city and the state after his 4-year-old son was booted from pre-K class because of the parents’ objection to vaccines.

The father, identified only as P.R. in the lawsuit over the contentious issue, is a Catholic who had sought a religious exemption to the state law requiring that every child attending a public, private or parochial school must be immunized from 11 communicable diseases.

His son was removed from his public school classroom on Dec. 23 after city Department of Education officials rejected the father’s appeal of an earlier decision. The city concluded the paperwork he submitted “does not substantiate … that you hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to immunization,” according to the suit.

Last month, the city added a requirement that children under 5 who attend preschool or day care must get flu shots.

The boys’ parents filed an affidavit Monday stating they believe that “immunization demonstrates a great lack of faith in the gift of health and the promise of protection that we are given at birth and through baptism we put our child in the hands of the Lord … God wants us to put our faith for disease prevention in him exclusively. Continue reading “Father sues New York to obtain religious vaccination exemption for son”

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

©friendlyatheist.com, 2012
©friendlyatheist.com, 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.” Continue reading “Court decides parent’s refusal to vaccinate kids is not “free exercise of religion””