ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (CN) — A Florida appeals court ruled this week that a Catholic private school can reject students who have not been vaccinated, despite a statewide mandate that provides immunization exemptions.
Patrick Flynn and his wife have eight children, some of whom are vaccinated, all of whom attend or attended schools of the Diocese of St. Augustine.
“Earlier in their lives, some of the older children received vaccinations prior to the Flynns deciding that doing so was inconsistent with their relationship with God,” Judge Scott Makar wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel on the First District Court of Appeal.
The Diocese changed its policy before the 2015-16 school year, and required students to be immunized to attend the Holy Spirit elementary school in Jacksonville, where Flynn’s youngest son had just graduated from kindergarten.
Flynn objected in writing, citing his religious belief, but the Holy Spirit School refused to admit his first-grader. Flynn sued the Diocese of St. Augustine and its Bishop Felipe Estevez, claiming the policy violated his “statutory right to exempt his child from compulsory immunizations at Holy Spirit.”
Though private and public schools in Florida require students to be immunized it allows exemptions if a parent objects in good faith, in writing, saying the immunization conflicts with his or her religious beliefs.
The Diocese argued that that its students must be immunized for the common good and that this “requirement is a religious tenet and practice.”
It also said that a secular court should not be allowed to invade its “ecclesiastical sovereignty” over church policy, in violation of the First Amendment.
The trial court concluded that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also called the church autonomy doctrine, “precluded it from wading into the religious controversy between the Diocese and a Catholic parent seeking admission of his non-immunized son to first grade. We agree,” Makar wrote.
He called the church autonomy doctrine a result of “a long line of Supreme Court cases that affirm the fundamental right of churches to ‘decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’”
He added: “Resolution of Mr. Flynn’s request to declare his religious objection valid and to admit his non-immunized child to Holy Spirit would ‘inappropriately entangle [the trial court] in constitutionally protected church doctrine’ and improperly place it in the position of determining ‘the religious morals, tenets and practices of a given religion.’”
Were a secular court to force church schools to accept nonimmunized students, in violation of church policy, it would “send() the message that the secular government can, by statute, take away a constitutional freedom.”
The Diocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Judges Ross Bilbrey and Susan Kelsey wrote concurring opinions, Kelsey concurring “in result only.”