Anti-vaccination agitators received a huge blow last week when federal Judge William Kuntz of Brooklyn ruled against three families claiming that their religious rights were being violated when schools pulled their unvaccinated children out of class out of fear of disease spreading through the school. The New York Times reports:
Two of the families in the lawsuit who had received religious exemptions challenged the city’s policy on barring their children, saying it amounted to a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, among other claims. Their children had been kept from school when other students had chickenpox, their suit said.
The third family didn't have a religious exemption in the first place, as the mother involved tried to get a medical exemption first. When that failed, she claimed to have religious objections to vaccination, which called into question her sincerity of religious conviction. However, the issue here is not the acquisition of nonmedical exemptions, which are on the rise across the country in the wake of conspiracy theories about vaccines being dangerous and the supposed coverup of said dangers. The issue is how schools are legally allowed to deal with unvaccinated kids in their populations.
In his decision, Kuntz cited a 1905 case in which a man was fined for refusing a smallpox vaccine, a case that was instrumental in establishing the government's right to protect the public health, even if it means restraining individual rights to do so. Still, this New York City case demonstrates how difficult it can be for a school to balance its duty to keep kids safe (pulling unvaccinated kids out during disease outbreaks protects their health and keeps them from being vectors for the disease to spread) with a desire to be tolerant of parental belief systems, even when those beliefs don't line up with scientific consensus or other factual realities. It would be better if there were no nonmedical exemptions to begin with, but as long as these exemptions are legal, pulling the kids out periodically is the best the school can do to keep all children safer from disease.
It's hard to say what this decision means, big picture, for the anti-vaccination movement, since Kuntz didn't touch the right to exemptions. When it comes to public relations, however, it serves to remind anti-vaxxers that there are significant nonmedical consequences to their decisions. Yes, having the school periodically suspend your kid is a pain, in terms of child care, and also not great for his or her education, but there's a way for you to avoid all that: Get your kid vaccinated.
New York schools are not alone in standing up to anti-vaxx parents. In Ohio, where there is a measles and mumps outbreak, parents were recently warned that unvaccinated kids might have to stay home for 25 days or more. This ruling will hopefully give more schools the fortitude to make the same call.