In 2000 the United States declared that measles had been eradicated in the country.[i] Yet, as most of us are aware, there has been a resurgence of measles in the United States. One of the hotbeds of the disease is New York State. Since the beginning of the epidemic there have been 654 measles cases in New York City and 414 in other parts of the state.[ii] The epicenters of these outbreaks has been Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County. Thankfully the threat seems to have run its course. This week Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the NYC Health Commissioner, announced an end to the outbreak, noting that there have been no new cases reported since July.[iii] With school starting, the mixing of students in confined spaces could be a real danger for the spreading of any disease, let alone one as contagious as measles.
Like many states, New York has a law requiring all students to be vaccinated against many diseases, including measles, before they can attend public or private school. That law has an exemption for religious based objection to the vaccinations. On June 13, 2019, New York passed a law removing that religious exemption. It was challenged immediately in court and the court released a ruling this week.[iv]
A case like this has civil rights questions galore. It is an excellent example of the conflict between freedom of religion under the First Amendment and the Equal Protections clause of the Constitution against public safety.
It is generally agreed that States can use their police powers[v] to enact neutral laws to protect public safety. In this case New York has enacted a mandatory vaccination law to protect the health and safety of the public. Initially that law had two exemptions, one on medical grounds where it was dangerous to the patient to receive a vaccine and the second, non-medical, for honestly held religious beliefs. Many other states have similar laws and courts throughout the country have upheld their validity. Since Jacobson v. Massachusetts[vi] in 1905, where the Supreme Court held that such laws were within the state’s police powers, no court has ever struck down a mandatory vaccination law.
In the face of the recent measles epidemic, New York determined that the public safety was being endangered by the large number of unvaccinated people and chose to remove the religious exemption. Plaintiffs in the suit, which were a number of parents suing on behalf of their children, claimed that the removal of the religious exemption violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. They also argued that they were being treated unequally in violation of the Equal Protections clause of the Constitution.
The court quickly disposed of the Equal Protection claim for Plaintiff’s failure to fully establish their claim and rejecting the idea that the children in this case were in the same situation as adults who were not required to be vaccinated.
The First Amendment claim was carefully addressed and the end result was the court holding that removing the religious exemption was not a violation of religious freedom since it did not impact one religion over another. The law was neutral to all religions and a valid use of New York’s police powers. “This is not a case where the government singled out those with religious beliefs and imposed an affirmative burden on them”[vii] While it did not figure in the decision, the court also noted that many parents who were against vaccinations were claiming religious grounds when their real objection was based on other grounds.
The end result is that the court denied Plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction while the case makes its way through the courts. The case is not dead, but part of the request for a preliminary injunction is showing the court that you are likely to win the case, and the court specifically held that they would not be likely to win. So, for now, all students attending elementary school in NY must be vaccinated.
[vi] 197 U.S. 11
[vii] https://www.scribd.com/document/423150565/Judge-Denise-Hartman-Decision#from_embed, p 25
The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission. It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.