E.D.N.Y. Judge Upholds NYC Schools Vaccination Policy Against Religious Challenge


Federal Courthouse
Eastern District of New York

Judge William F. Kuntz II of the Eastern District of New York, dismissed a suit by three families alleging that their religious freedoms were violated when their unvaccinated children were prevented from attending classes in public school whenever another child attending the school contracted a vaccine-preventable disease.

The complaint by the families included a number of claims under state law, so the suit could be filed again in state court in New York (but absent the federal causes of action). Whether the families will be willing to take this step is impossible to say, although the anti-vax movement is notoriously vocal, so it’s a distinct possibility. For now, the families have announced their intention to appeal the ruling, so we’ll almost certainly hear about this case again in eight months or so.

In dismissing the case, Judge Kuntz stated:

Plaintiffs argue that the vaccination program at issue denies their children the constitutional right to free exercise of religion, but not only has the Supreme Court strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations, courts in this Eastern District have resolutely found there is no such constitutional exemption. [internal citations omitted]

The Supreme Court case cited, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, states:

We are not prepared to hold that a minority, residing or remaining in any city or town where smallpox is prevalent, and enjoying the general protection afforded by an organized local government, may thus defy the will of its constituted authorities, acting in good faith for all, under the legislative sanction of the State. If such be the privilege of a minority then a like privilege would belong to each individual of the community, and the spectacle would be presented of the welfare and safety of an entire population being subordinated to the notions of a single individual who chooses to remain a part of that population. We are unwilling to hold it to be an element in the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States that one person, or a minority of persons, residing in any community and enjoying the benefits of its local government, should have the power thus to dominate the majority when supported in their action by the authority of the State.

Jacobson was handed down 110 years ago, so both the political leanings of the Court and the case law concerning religious freedom have gone though significant shifts since then. It will be interesting to see what the Second Circuit does with the appeal.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the school district policy in question here is designed to protect the unvaccinated children whose families are now arguing that their rights were violated. Because they are not vaccinated, they would be highly susceptible infection. (Side note: my browser doesn’t recognize “unvaccinated” as a word. Maybe one day that will be true, Chrome. Maybe one day…) This policy ensures that their contact with an infected child is as limited as possible.

For those who are interested, the full text of the order dismissing the case is below. It was a little annoying to find. None of the news articles covering this story bothered to link to the actual text of the order. These things are available for free from PACER.gov, guys. Come on, journalists. Do your jobs.

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