Eighth Circuit Tosses Challenge to Missouri Opt-Out Rules for Vaccines

While the federal appeals court dismissed the case, a challenge on the state level continues and proposed legislation could remove immunization requirements for students in private schools.

(Philippe Desmazes/Pool Photo via AP)

ST. LOUIS (CN) — Missouri’s requirements for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for them to attend school do not violate their right to religious freedom, the Eighth Circuit ruled Friday.

The parents sued to challenge the state’s “Movax Law,” which requires all children attending school to have a certain set of vaccines. They argued the law requires parents to involuntarily consent to a set of vaccines over a period of years with the risk of permanent harm to their children.

They claim the law violates their religious rights, free speech, their children’s due process rights to bodily integrity, their right to parental consent, equal protection and the right to an education.

At issue is a statement at the top of the opt-out form, known as Form 11, that the plaintiffs claim requires them to go through a forced indoctrination session to religiously opt out of vaccines. They argued it amounts to compelled speech in violation of their First Amendment rights.

But in a unanimous ruling, the Eight Circuit’s three-judge panel found Friday that Form 11 does not force the plaintiffs to affiliate with the government’s immunization statement.

“Instead, Form 11 states the government’s position, separated from the religious opt-out,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton, a George W. Bush appointee. “Unlike a student required to recite the Pledge [of Allegiance] or a motorist required to display the state’s motto, there is no confusion here: it is the government’s message to parents considering Form 11.”

U.S. Circuit Judges David Stras, a Donald Trump appointee, and Raymond W. Gruender, another George W. Bush appointee, joined Benton on the opinion, which affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss the case.

The panel also rejected the parents’ religious freedoms claim, finding that the opt-out form does not make them morally complicit in the production or use of vaccines.

“Form 11 communicates neutrally to anyone considering opting out on religious grounds that the government discourages it, but ‘the ultimate decision is yours’—the parents’,” Benton wrote. “The form states the government’s neutral and generally applicable position that immunization prevents childhood diseases, and thus should be required for school attendance.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney Linus Baker, whose clients include his daughter and three grandchildren, said he was disappointed in the ruling. He believes the panel didn’t get the essence of the “gauntlet” that parents must go through to obtain the Form 11 and submit it.

“There are three children, my grandchildren, that have been permanently denied an education, they have been permanently expelled from their charter school, Crossroads” Baker said in an interview. “They got the educational death sentence. Why? Because their parents would not fill out that form. Nothing these kids ever did on their own. No, nothing, and Crossroads has said forever you will be denied an education, simply because your parents will not say again, to us, as they have in the past, this religious objection to vaccinations.”

Baker doesn’t anticipate a request for an en banc hearing before the St. Louis-based appeals court. He said the federal lawsuit is part of a multi-pronged challenge to the state’s requirement, which includes a legal challenge on the state level and an effort to have the statute changed in the state legislature.

The state lawsuit, filed in Jackson County in 2019, is set for a status conference in May.

Representative Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon, has sponsored House Bill 37, which would remove immunization requirements for students attending private schools in Missouri. Baker’s daughter is scheduled to testify at a committee hearing on the bill on Tuesday.

The attorney says the bill has “specific language in there that talks specifically about ‘hey, you cannot make these parents jump through all these hoops, interrogate them and all this, just to exercise the religious objection.’”

A spokesperson for the state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baker argued in a teleconference hearing in January that Missouri forces parents to physically go to their local health department to pick up Form 11 only to then be subjected to efforts to dissuade them from their religious beliefs. He told the court the parents have to go through the process each school year.

Missouri Deputy Solicitor General Jesus Osete refuted Baker’s claim that filling out Form 11 would be a regular occurrence, telling the court that it was a one-time requirement. He also argued that it does not require parents to agree with the pro-vaccination information on the form.

A federal judge dismissed the case last year, finding that the courts have long recognized vaccine requirements with or without religious exemptions, as well as the state’s freedom to advocate for vaccines. That decision prompted the appeal to the Eighth Circuit.

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