Parents claim religious exemption to vaccination laws, judge finds no constitutional basis

June 19, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
William Kuntz ruled on a religious exemption case
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Parents of New York children seeking constitutional reprieve from New York’s mandatory vaccination laws found little sympathy in Brooklyn’s federal court. District Judge William Kuntz ruled that no constitutional rights are denied to parents who seek to remove their children from vaccination requirements.

New York’s education law requires school-age children to receive vaccinations prior to attending school. Nicole Phillips, Fabian Mendoza-Vaca and Dina Check, parents of minor children, decided against vaccinations for their children on the grounds of sincere religious beliefs and objections to the practice. Understanding that some parents may have reasons to be against vaccinations, the state allows for exemptions on religious grounds. The condition to the state exemption is that non-vaccinated children are excluded from school when schoolmate reports a vaccine-preventable disease. 

These exclusions, Phillips, Mendoza-Vaca, and Check contend, violate their and their children’s First Amendment protection of religious freedom and 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, in addition to the New York state constitution and human rights law. Arguing that their children were “arbitrarily, capriciously, unreasonably and unconstitutionally denied” the religious freedom to abstain from vaccination, the parent plaintiffs filed a claim against The Department of Education in Brooklyn’s federal court seeking a determination that New York state vaccination practices are in fact unconstitutional.

The United States Supreme Court addressed the matter of vaccinations and the freedom of religion.  The high court has a long history in this jurisprudence, having — as early as 1905 —“strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations,” Kuntz noted in his ruling.  

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If the 109-year-old ruling was not sufficient to establish precedent, Kuntz cited a more recent Brooklyn federal court ruling holding that “the free exercise clause of the First Amendment does not provide a right for religious objectors to be exempt from New York’s compulsory inoculation law.” 

In fact, New York’s allowance for a religious exemption to vaccination laws “goes beyond what the Supreme Court has declared the First Amendment to require,” Kuntz wrote, again citing case precedent. Kuntz’s ruling shows that a requirement to vaccinate one’s child does not prevent or prohibit the exercise of one’s religion. That is even made even clearer by the fact that New York specifically allows for religious exemptions.

The parent plaintiffs further alleged that the state’s vaccination requirements violate the 14th Amendment grant of equal protection. Kuntz, however, was unable to find an instance, in the arguments presented by the plaintiffs of “any facts tending to show that defendants favored any religion over another.” As such, Kuntz held, the plaintiffs were unable to adequately state a claim that their 14th Amendment rights were indeed violated.

Generally a federal court can rule on questions of state law when the case at hand also involves federal questions or issues. Because there were no viable federal constitutional claims to further substantiate the plaintiffs’ arguments, Kuntz “decline[d] to exercise pendant jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ remaining state claims, dismissing the case in its entirety.”

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