BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Accused in a new lawsuit of disability discrimination, New York Attorney General Letitia James on Friday defended vaccine requirements for children to attend school.
“Vaccines ensure the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities,” James said in a statement. “This law will help protect New Yorkers from experiencing any additional public health crises, which is why we are prepared to defend it vigorously.”
The statement came a day after four mothers and a couple brought an anonymous federal complaint in Central Islip that says their children will be unable to attend school in the fall thanks to New York’s repeal last month of a religious exemption to vaccination requirements.
“Because of the state’s imprudent actions, in September at the start of school, disabled children in New York will be relegated to their homes without access to their federally protected school services, placements, and programming guaranteed to them under the IEPs,” the complaint says, using an abbreviation for Individualized Education Programs, which schools use to prepare for the unique needs of children with disabilities.
New York’s newly Democratic Legislature ended nonmedical exemptions for child vaccinations in June, responding to what has been the biggest U.S. measles outbreak in nearly two decades. Thursday’s complaint does not allege that the minor-plaintiffs have a medical exemption, noting that they have been citing unspecified religious beliefs to remain unvaccinated.
The children behind Thursday’s suit have a range of disabilities and learning challenges including autism, Down syndrome and speech impairments. Their parents accuse New York of repealing the religious exemption without proper notice, leaving the children now with nowhere to go. They say are not equipped to attend themselves to their children’s special education needs.
The suit leans on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that says children with disabilities must have access to the “least restrictive” education environment possible.
“The IDEA provides substantial rights to students with disabilities, with no qualifications based on vaccination status,” Kim Mack Rosenberg, an attorney with Bouer Law who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview Friday.
“What this law does is effectively, without notice or due process, ban these children from the classrooms.”
While taking care not to minimize the importance of her clients’ religious beliefs, Mack Rosenberg emphasized that the focus of her case is protecting the education rights of disabled children in the U.S.
Science shows vaccines are safe and effective. The CDC maintains the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is “very safe” with only a “very small risk” of unusual, non-life-threatening side effects and “extremely rare” cases of serious allergic reactions.
Mack Rosenberg denied, however, that it would be simple for her clients to vaccinate their children to keep them enrolled in school. She said the reasons are specific to each child but did not elaborate.
It’s not clear what religions specifically advocate against vaccinations. As the measles outbreak exploded in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, Jewish religious leaders spoke out in favor of vaccines, saying their faith teaches its followers to avoid harm and protect their communities.
Mack Rosenberg maintained it’s more complicated and personal than that, but declined to say what religion or religions her clients practice.
“It’s a personal question for each family,” she said, citing Judaism as an example of a case where religious texts have “different interpretations.”
Representatives for Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to Thursday’s lawsuit by referring to remarks that Cuomo made last month about whether the repeal would hold up at the Supreme Court.
“I’m not going to wager anything with this Supreme Court, but California passed a bill that we basically modeled in our bill,” Cuomo said in an interview for the Northeast public radio station WAMC. “The bill was challenged, the bill was upheld. So I feel good about the bill that we have signed. The Supreme Court — who knows?”
Months before the state took action, local leaders in Rockland County and New York City declared a public health emergency related to the measles outbreak and issued a vaccination mandate for several zip codes in Brooklyn.