Judge Upholds Law Blocking Religious Exemptions to Vaccines Just Before School Starts

August 27, 2019 Updated: August 27, 2019

A New York Supreme Court judge upheld the state’s recently passed law that eliminates religious exemptions for student vaccination, just days before school starts.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman ruled against the dozens of parents who filed a lawsuit against the state, denying their request for a preliminary injunction that would have let parents continue to claim the religious exemption until the case was settled.

The lawsuit (pdf) was brought by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and attorney Michael Sussman on behalf of the parents and will still be heard as the school year starts. It argues the law discriminates against religious people and violates the First Amendment rights of parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

Parents wrote that “[r]ather than being motivated by any serious concern for public health and despite the rhetoric of the Governor, in the public debate and discourse which proceeded passage of this repeal legislation, numerous leading proponents of the legislation expressed active hostility toward the religious exemption and ridiculed and scorned those who held such exemptions.”

That included Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins saying “we’ve chosen science over rhetoric” and state Senator James Skoufis, a Democratic sponsor, who said: “There is not one religious institution, not one single one that denounces vaccines. So, here is a religious exemption pretending as if there is a religion out there that has a problem with the vaccines. Whether you are Christian, Jewish or Scientologist, none of these religions have texts or dogma that denounce vaccines. Let’s stop pretending like they do.”

Plaintiffs also said that neither the state House or Senate held public hearings before enacting the legislation.

But Hartman said that a number of court rulings over the past 100 years give the state power to mandate vaccinations for students, including Jacobson v Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Matter of Viemeister.

The Supreme Court ruled in Prince v Massachusetts that a parent “cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds,” Hartman wrote in the 32-page ruling.

“Because plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, the Supreme Court denies the request for a preliminary injunction; the legislative repeal of the religious exemption remains in effect,” she concluded.

Sussman told The Journal News that he plans to appeal the ruling.

Some 26,000 parents claimed the religious exemption in New York in the 2018-19 school year.

A nurse prepares a vaccine
A nurse prepares a vaccine in a file photo. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Hartman’s ruling came about six weeks after Supreme Court Justice J. Mackey denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order in the case. Another lawsuit brought by parents was dropped last week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the law on Aug. 13. “The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe and effective. While I respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect public health​,” he said after signing the bill.

Lawmakers said that the United States “is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of measles since 1994, a disease that, in a major health victory, officials declared eliminated from the United States in 2000.”

Some 880 cases were said to have cropped up before the bill was passed across the nation and there were at least 810 confirmed cases of measles in New York state between Oct. 2018 and the bill’s passage.

The memorandum introduced in support of the bill said that “freedom of religion is a founding tenet of this nation” but added: “longstanding precedent establishing that one’s right to free religious expression does not include the right to endanger the health of the community, one’s children, or the children of others.”

New York, with the repeal of the religious exemption, joined California, Maine, West Virginia, and Mississippi as states providing for no religious or other non-medical exemptions from compulsory vaccination laws. Hartman said she’s not aware of any cases striking down the laws in the four other states.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber
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