September 2014 Church & State | People & Events

Children whose parents opt them out of vaccines on religious grounds can be barred from New York City’s public schools if the child poses a threat to other pupils, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William F. Kuntz II found that education officials can send unvaccinated children home when another student suffers from a vaccine-preventable disease. Three families had challenged the city’s policy, arguing that it unconstitutionally violated their freedom of religious expression. According to The New York Times, two families sued to overturn the city’s policy, while a third plaintiff sued over the city’s refusal to grant her the religious exemption she sought.

“We don’t want anything being put into our bodies at all,” said Nicole Phillips, mother of two unvaccinated children, after filing suit in 2012. “We’d rather rely on our natural immune system and our faith in God. This is about my children’s rights.”

Lead plaintiff Dina Check argued that the city’s requirements to qualify for a religious exemption also violated her constitutional rights. She believes her daughter was “intoxicated” after receiving some vaccines as an infant and subsequently sought an exemption from the rest of the vaccine schedule.

“Disease is pestilence,” Check told The Times. “And pestilence is from the devil. The devil is germs and disease, which is cancer and any of those things that can take you down. But if you trust in the Lord, these things cannot come near you.”

But Kuntz rejected those arguments, citing a 109-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case that upheld a $5 fine for a Massachusetts man who refused a smallpox vaccine during an epidemic.

That case, Kuntz wrote, is evidence that the court “strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations.”

New York City officials, Kuntz said, have a compelling interest to protect public health, and that outweighs the right of religious objectors to send their unvaccinated children to public schools where they might possibly endanger others.

There’s also evidence that the city’s policy has successfully curbed at least one measles outbreak. The Times reported that between February and April of this year, 25 people contracted measles, a vaccine-preventable disease. Two were children whose parents exempted them from vaccines for religious reasons. Although one child was being home-schooled, a sibling attended public school. Officials say the outbreak would have been much worse if the infected children hadn’t been ordered to stay home.  

But the families who filed suit over the city’s policy are seemingly undeterred by Kuntz’s ruling in Check v. New York City Department of Education. Their attorney, Patricia Finn, said that they intend to appeal.