'Anti-Vaxxers' Lose; 2nd Cir. Finds Religious Beliefs Not 'Sincere'

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 07, 2015 3:00 PM

So-called anti-vaxxers believe that vaccination is harmful, as vaccines contain harmful "chemicals." A resurgence in once long-gone diseases is arguably attributable to a new wave of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.

The problem is that many public school districts require children to be vaccinated before they can attend school. Because, you know, a parent's decision not to vaccinate actually has consequences for other children. But just ignore all that. An anti-vaccine case hit the Second Circuit Court of Appeals -- and, predictably, the anti-vaxxers lost.

Religious Exemptions? Sure, Why Not.

Nicole Phillips and other parents challenged New York State's requirement that children be vaccinated in order to attend public school. They claimed the statute violated -- and sit down, because there's a lot of violations -- their Free Exercise, substantive due process, Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, and Ninth Amendment (?) rights.

There's already a religious exception in the law for genuinely held religious beliefs. The plaintiffs, who are Catholic, got religious exemptions, but the district can override the exceptions in the event of an outbreak of a disease that can be prevented by barring a kid who isn't vaccinated from coming to school. Another plaintiff was denied a religious exception, the school finding that the religious belief wasn't "genuine and sincere."

That plaintiff, Dina Check, turned out to dislike vaccines for the same health-related reasons as every other anti-vaxxer. "On cross-examination, Check testified that she did not know of any tenets of Catholicism that prohibited vaccinations," said the court.

That's Not Going to Work

The Second Circuit disposed of this case pretty easily. The Supreme Court already decided -- back in 1905, actually -- that compulsory vaccination was a legitimate exercise of the state's police power, so that disposed of the substantive due process claim.

On the Free Exercise claim, it turns out that New York is actually going "beyond what the Constitution requires" by providing a religious exception. Because the vaccination requirement is neutral with respect to religion, and generally applicable, "New York could constitutionally require that all children be vaccinated in order to attend public school" without any exception.

The court wasn't quite sure where the Equal Protection claim came from, but if it was due to Check's Catholicism, the other plaintiffs "are both Catholic and received religious exemptions."

Finally, the Ninth Amendment argument is super dismissed because "[t]he Ninth Amendment is not an independent source of individual rights."

Vaccination has been proven to be an overwhelmingly successful way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Nevertheless, anti-vaccine websites promote the use of the religious exception not as a sincerely held belief, but rather as a tactic for circumventing state vaccination requirements. They may have forgotten about the "genuine and sincere" part, though.

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