Federal judge rejects religious exemptions to Arkansas immunization law

By The Associated Press

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Arkansas law on immunizing school children is partly unconstitutional because it requires families to define their religion, a federal judge has ruled.

But the child whose family brought a lawsuit against the Ozark School District and state officials challenging the law still must be immunized to attend schools, U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled July 25.

State Health Department officials refused comment July 26, saying they had not received a copy of the order.

Danielle McCarthy, 11, was expelled last Oct. 1 after her family refused on religious grounds to let the girl be vaccinated for hepatitis B.

Health department officials said their hands were tied because state law required that anyone seeking a religious exemption must be a member of a recognized church.

The girl's father, Dan McCarthy, filed the suit, saying he shouldn't have to prove his religious beliefs to the Health Department in order for his daughter to be exempt from vaccinations usually required of students.

McCarthy has said he and his wife are not part of an established church but read the Bible.

In his original complaint, McCarthy stated his belief that the body is "the temple of the Holy Spirit" and that God gave his daughter "an immune system that will be violated by the induction of vaccinations."

In his order, Dawson said the religious-exemption section of the law "clearly runs afoul of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

Dawson continued: "The provision fails ... because its primary effect is to inhibit the earnest beliefs and practices of those individuals who oppose immunization on religious grounds but are not members of an officially recognized religious organization."

The order gives McCarthy the satisfaction of seeing a portion of state law ruled unconstitutional. But the Ozark school system and the state get confirmation that students must be immunized before entering school doors.

"It has long been settled that individual rights must be subordinated to the compelling state interest of protecting society against the spread of disease," Dawson wrote.

Last year, Dawson granted a preliminary injunction in the case, allowing the girl to return to school without the vaccinations until the lawsuit was resolved. His latest order supersedes that injunction.