A federal judge has ruled in favor of a New York City policy that allows schools to ban unvaccinated kids from attending classes when another child has come down with a vaccine preventable illness, the New York Times reports. The lawsuit consolidated separate challenges from three families who claimed their religious freedom was violated when their kids were banned from school for up to a month at a time during disease outbreaks.
Over the past two years, several different lawsuits have been filed against the city by parents who object to its immunization law. “We don’t want anything being put into our bodies at all,” Nicole Phillips, the mother of two children at a Queens-area school who have missed several weeks of class this school year because they haven’t been vaccinated, explained when she sued back in 2012. “We’d rather rely on our natural immune system and our faith in God. This is about my children’s rights.”
But Judge William F. Kuntz II of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn disagreed with that argument, determining that the Supreme Court has “strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations” and concluding that the city’s strict vaccine guidelines are in place to safeguard its residents’ well being.
To back up his decision, the judge cited a 1905 Supreme Court ruling upholding a fine for a Massachusetts man who refused to get vaccinated during a smallpox outbreak. That case helped frame vaccine requirements in the context of the government’s right to protect public health.
The issue of vaccine exemptions has gained national attention lately, as vaccine-preventable diseases have continued to spread among pockets of people who haven’t received their inoculations. There have been record-breaking numbers of whooping cough, measles, and mumps cases over the past year.
The vast majority of states allow parents to claim religious objections to vaccines, and some also allow them to opt out based on more subjective “philosophical objections.” Allowing parents to evade vaccine requirements is directly tied to an increase in infectious disease outbreaks. Nonetheless, over the past several years, the number of families claiming these exemptions has been on the rise. Many of the individuals who object to vaccines incorrectly believe that it’s not safe for their kids to follow the federal government’s recommended schedule, partly because of the persistent myth that vaccines are tied to autism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns parents that deciding against vaccinating can come with consequences, including leading kids to miss school if their classmates get sick. Indeed, it’s not entirely uncommon for schools to tell unvaccinated students to stay home in the midst of an outbreak. Some doctors even refuse to treat kids who aren’t up to date on their vaccinations, saying that pediatricians’ offices need to be a safe environment where young kids aren’t at risk of catching diseases.
This isn’t the only recent court decision to rule against parents who are opposed to vaccines. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that parents cannot sue pharmaceutical companies because they believe vaccines harmed their children, determining that allowing vaccine injury claims would ultimately result in civil cases where juries are sympathetic to parents regardless of the actual medical evidence. Instead, allegations about vaccines must go before special tribunals established by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986.