(Editor's note: U.S. District Judge William Downes approved a settlement Aug. 8 between the Wyoming Department of Health and several parents. The agreement bars the state from holding hearings to determine whether parents who object to immunizations for their children have sincere religious convictions about the issue.)
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Schoolchildren should be exempted automatically from the state's mandatory vaccination program if their parents object on religious grounds, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled last week.
The court unanimously ruled March 8 in favor of Susan LePage, of Worland, who had asked the Department of Health to exempt her daughter from receiving a hepatitis B vaccine shot, a requirement for entry into public school.
The Department of Health convened a hearing to determine the sincerity of LePage's religious claims for an immunization waiver.
Such hearings are illegal, the court ruled.
"We have been presented with no evidence that the number of religious exemption waiver requests are excessive and are confident in our presumption that parents act in the best interests of their children's physical, as well as their spiritual, health," Justice Marilyn Kite wrote.
"Furthermore, construing the statute as the Department of Health raises questions concerning the extent to which the government should be involved in the religious lives of its citizens."
The Health Department must grant all written requests for religious exemptions automatically, the high court ruled.
Then-State Health Officer Dr. Shannon Harrison said LePage's objections were philosophical, not religious. LePage, who appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, argued the vaccine encourages immoral behavior because the disease is commonly spread through unprotected sex and shared needles.
The department contended it has a duty to protect children from disease, and too many nonimmunized children would make other children susceptible to diseases.
"The state certainly has a valid interest in protecting public schoolchildren from unwarranted exposure to infectious diseases," Kite wrote.
Pending the outcome of the case, the Department of Health revised its rules to make it easier for parents to obtain religious exemptions, department director Dr. Garry McKee said.
Also, the department has begun tracking immunization rates.
"As long as you maintain about a 90 percent level of kids immunized, then you have protection for others as well," McKee said.
Robert Moxley, an attorney for LePage, said the ruling could shape the outcome of a separate case in federal court that challenges the mandatory vaccination program. U.S. District Judge William Downes has not yet issued a decision in the case.
The plaintiffs in that case, also represented by Moxley, are parents from Casper, Hulett, Douglas and Cora.
LePage and the other parents did not have to withdraw their children from school pending the outcome of legal arguments, he said.
Moxley said the state Supreme Court's ruling reduces the threat of the state challenging parents' religious claims.
"The danger is certainly minimized because it would take some kind of conscious decision of the Legislature to deprive people of their rights of religious freedom," he said.
A bill that died early in the Legislature sought to abolish the religious exemption, he said.
Several years ago, parents of five students withdrew their children from a school in Hulett because of the department's immunization stance.
"There is an anti-mandatory vaccine movement. It is an awful small minority that say vaccines are bad per se," Moxley said. "But there's a school of thought among citizens that they have a right to choose. It's an informed consent issue."