Challenge to New York Revoking Religious Exemptions for School Vaccinations Reaches Supreme Court

By Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
contributor
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.
January 27, 2022 Updated: January 28, 2022

Parents of schoolchildren in New York state have filed a challenge with the Supreme Court contesting the state’s 2019 repeal of a law that exempted those with sincere religious objections from having to accept the vaccinations that children are normally required to receive in order to attend school.

The petition comes as courts across the country, including the Supreme Court, are considering the separate, more specific issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and becoming increasingly receptive to arguments that governments are overstepping their lawful, constitutional authority in combating the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The case is F.F. v. State of New York, Supreme Court file 21-1003.

The petition for review (pdf) was filed with the Supreme Court on Jan. 10, with attorney Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein and Ullrich in New Paltz, New York, listed as the counsel of record. Prominent activist and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of Peachtree City, Georgia-based Children’s Health Defense is listed on the petition’s cover as co-counsel for the petitioners.

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The Supreme Court on Sept. 21, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Although the state of New York requires children to be vaccinated against communicable diseases, such as hepatitis B, measles, and polio, as a condition of attending public or private school, the state had recognized both medical and religious exemptions to this requirement since 1966. But in June 2019, state lawmakers repealed the religious exemption, leaving the medical exemption in place. Existing state rules don’t require students older than 18 or any other adult in the school environment to be vaccinated.

The petitioners in the case are “parents from throughout New York, who have not vaccinated their children because of their sincerely-held religious beliefs,” according to the petition.

In the past, the parents had sought and been granted religious exemptions–and getting the exemption “has hardly been a rubber stamp process in New York, and many school districts, such as New York City schools, rejected the overwhelming majority of applications.”

“There is no doubt that vaccines are tremendously important to our country,” the petition reads. “Most people believe in vaccines and take them without a second thought. We do not pretend otherwise. But equally important to our country is the foundational principle that one’s sincerely-held religious beliefs ought be respected. So vital is this principle, it is enshrined in our Constitution.

“As it happens, a small minority of our population objects to vaccinations on religious grounds. We cannot simply disregard these few just because most of us might believe otherwise, or because other legitimate, or even vital, interests might be at stake. Such would be antithetical to our founding ideals. Rather, we must respect all religious views, no matter how foreign or peculiar they may seem to us.”

The New York Supreme Court for the County of Albany dismissed the complaint and declared that the challenged repeal law was constitutional. Two state appellate courts affirmed the ruling. One of the appellate courts found that the legislation revoking the religious exemption was sound public policy and not motivated by politics or ideology.

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A class at a public school in New York on July 22, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

The petitioners dispute this.

“In supporting the repeal, various legislators, including leadership and the law’s sponsors, made religiously hostile comments, rejecting the notion of a true religious objection to vaccination and belittling such objectors as ‘anti-vaxxers’ and misguided fools,” the petition reads.

“Thousands of children who were previously exempted from the vaccine requirement based on their religions objections have been evicted from all public, private and religious schools and put in the position of choosing between their religious beliefs and access to school-based education.”

But the appellate court sided with medical groups that “describe the highly contagious nature of measles, noting that prevention will occur when 93 to 95 percent of the population becomes immune, requiring that ‘the vaccine be given to virtually everyone who can safely receive it,’” according to a statement from the American Medical Association in April 2021.

“This court decision is an important victory for public health,” Bonnie Litvack, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, was quoted as saying at the time.

“As we are seeing in the current COVID pandemic, vaccinations are an absolutely essential component to combatting communicable diseases. Physicians across the state will continue to work on the front lines to ensure they protect their patients’ health and make sure the public is educated about the importance of vaccinations in protecting everyone’s health.”

Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at the New York State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Aug. 24, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, supports adding COVID-19 vaccines to the list of mandatory inoculations for schoolchildren.

The Epoch Times reached out to the state’s usual counsel in the Supreme Court, New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, but a reply wasn’t received as of press time. The Supreme Court has directed the state to file a response to the petition by Feb. 14.

Matthew Vadum
contributor
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.