Child Vaccinations vs. Public Education – A Constitutional Quagmire

One intensifying social controversy concerns the vaccination of children. A June 2014 article in the journal Pediatrics reports that 1 out of 10 parents in the United States are refusing to vaccinate their children. The momentum of the so-called “Anti-Vac” movement has been aided by the endorsement of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, who publicly claims that vaccination is the likely cause of her son’s autism.

In 2000, the Center for Disease Control announced that measles had been eradicated in the United States. In May of 2014, the CDC proclaimed that the number of measles cases in the country is the highest it has been since the disease was eliminated, opining that unvaccinated individuals travelling abroad have brought the disease back to the States. Pertussis, or “whooping cough,” has also made a comeback in the last decade.

With many states across the country requiring parents to provide documentation of their children’s immunizations prior to allowing those children to attend school, a constitutional controversy, which will likely be addressed by the United States Supreme Court at some point, is brewing.

In one recent case, a New York City mother has sued the city’s Department of Education for refusing to grant her five year-old daughter a religious exemption from the state’s policy that children must be vaccinated against several diseases—including measles, mumps, rubella, and polio—before they can attend public school. That lawsuit actually consolidated separate challenges from three (3) families whose children were banned from school for up to one month during various disease outbreaks.

The most outspoken mother, who claims to be a devout follower of the Catholic faith, says that immunizing her child would represent “a lack of faith in God and his way.”  Judge William F. Kuntz II of the Federal District Court of Brooklyn disagreed with that argument, stating that the Supreme Court has “strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations” and concluding that New York City’s strict vaccine guidelines are meant to safeguard its residents’ health and well-being.

United States Supreme Court precedent states that religious exemptions from state laws may only be granted in light of “genuine and sincere” religious beliefs, so as to prevent persons from feigning “sham” religious beliefs to escape things like recreational drug use laws and military conscription. School officials say that this mother’s claims regarding vaccinations have not been substantiated as being genuine or sincere. Will this be the case that takes this issue through the Supreme Court doors?

Additional authors: Alison Almeida