No Religious Injunction to New York Vaccination Mandate

ALBANY (CN) – Earning applause from the state attorney general, a New York judge found no basis to let anti-vaxxers continue using a religious exemption repealed in June by the Legislature.

“Vaccines ensure the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Monday. “This law will help protect New Yorkers from experiencing any additional public health crises, which is why we vigorously defended it. We are pleased with the judge’s decision.”

Signs about measles and the measles vaccine are displayed at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., on April 24, 2019. The county in New York City’s northern suburbs declared a local state of emergency over a measles outbreak that has infected more than 150 people since last fall, hoping a ban against unvaccinated children in public places wakes their parents to the seriousness of the problem. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In her order refusing parents an injunction late Friday night, Albany Justice Denise Hartman noted that she does not doubt that the challengers have sincere religious objections to vaccinations, but that these interests do not outweigh the state’s authority to handle a measles vaccine that has wreaked havoc across the state.

“Protecting public health, and children’s health in particular, through attainment of threshold inoculation levels for community immunity from communicable diseases is unquestionably a compelling state interest,” wrote Hartman, who was expected to issue her findings before New York’s school year begins Sept. 5. 

New York lawmakers expanded the state’s vaccination mandate this past June in response to the biggest U.S. measles outbreak in over two decades. While the state continues to honor medical exemptions, parents can no longer use religious objections to enroll their children in school.

Justice Hartman noted in her ruling that the some of the plaintiffs who filed suit here cited Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts to support their position against vaccinations, while others attributed their objections to Buddhist and Hindu teachings.

The state meanwhile supplied evidence about the harm of letting these children come into contact with those who are too young to get vaccinated or are otherwise ineligible for other medical reasons.

“People who are unvaccinated … are placed at increased risk of contracting diseases which, as history shows, can result in life-long disabilities or death,” she wrote. 

The state called New York a “primary driver” of the 2018-19 U.S. measles outbreak, with 810 confirmed cases between October 2018 and May 2019. Data from 2013-14 showed there were at least 285 schools in the state with a vaccination rate below 85%, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 95% of the population be vaccinated to maintain herd immunity.

“Mandatory vaccination programs permitting only minimal exemptions unquestionably would reduce their exposure and risk of severe illness, allowing them to more freely attend schools and participate in community activities,” Hartman wrote.

The judge concluded that other measures, such as quarantining the unvaccinated, are simply not as effective in maintaining public health than widespread vaccinations, which are backed by science and medical consensus.

She quoted the 1944 Supreme Court ruling Prince v. Massachusetts: “The right to practice religion does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” 

Another New York judge used the same quotation last week in a separate ruling against anti-vaxxers. Challenges to New York’s vaccination crackdown have largely seen sweeping defeats in courts across the state this year.

The plaintiffs accused the state legislature of acting with “religious animus” when it voted on the repeal and noted it had not held public hearings on the issue. But Hartman pointed out the state had not imposed an extra burden on religions; rather, it had taken away an extra privilege that had never been afforded in the first place to New Yorkers with secular or philosophical belief systems. 

Michael Sussman, an attorney for the parents in the case, did not immediately respond. He noted Monday on Facebook that he plans to appeal. “I am sorry to have to report this news and extremely disappointed in the decision,” Sussman wrote.

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