Most parents make sure that their children are vaccinated according to state law before the students enter public schools. But what about parents whose religious beliefs forbid such state-mandated inoculations?
A new research article on the First Amendment Center Online examines the disputes that can arise when religious beliefs run counter to government mandates concerning vaccinations. Legal intern Shaun McFall frames the legal issue as one of religious accommodation under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.
Immunizations, exemptions and public health are in the news. The Associated Press reported today that measles cases in the U.S. were at the highest level in more than a decade; nearly half of the cases involve children whose parents rejected vaccination, according to health officials.
Worried doctors are troubled by the trend fueled by unfounded fears that vaccines may cause autism. The number of cases is still small, just 131, but that's only for the first seven months of the year. There were only 42 cases for all of last year.
"We're seeing a lot more spread. That is concerning to us," said Dr. Jane Seward, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's review, announced yesterday, found that a number of cases involved home-schooled children not required to get the vaccines. Others can avoid vaccination by seeking exemptions for religious and other reasons.
Measles, best known for a red skin rash, is a potentially deadly, highly infectious virus that spreads through contact with a sneezing, coughing, infected person. It is no longer endemic to the United States, but every year cases enter the country through foreign visitors or Americans returning from abroad. Measles epidemics have exploded in Israel, Switzerland and some other countries. But high U.S. childhood vaccination rates have prevented major outbreaks here.
In Washington state, a measles outbreak was traced to a church conference, including 16 school-aged children who were not vaccinated. Eleven of those kids were home-schooled and not subject to vaccination rules in public schools.
An Illinois outbreak — triggered by a teenager who had traveled to Italy — included 25 home-schooled children, according to the CDC report.
At least one outbreak this year of another preventable disease was blamed on lack of immunizations. At least 17 children were sick with whooping cough at a private school in the San Francisco Bay area, and 13 were not vaccinated against the disease, which can be fatal to children.
“Although religious accommodation has a rich history in the United States, it is a principle that is often controversial and difficult to apply,” McFall writes. “Religious claims for exemptions to state-compelled vaccinations demonstrate the difficult challenge of balancing competing claims.”
The article lays out the constitutional arguments for and against allowing religious exemptions in matters involving public health, discusses public health claims, details the most relevant case law and notes varying criteria used by the states for granting religious exemptions.
“The controversy over religious exemptions to vaccinations is far from over,” McFall concludes. “As concerns are raised by some parents about possible links between some inoculations and developmental disorders like autism, the number of non-medical exemptions requested grows annually, causing many health officials to be concerned that their bleak predictions of outbreaks might soon come true. Advocates on both sides of the issue appear to be becoming more vocal about their beliefs, thrusting the debate into the public eye and causing entrenchment on both sides. Such entrenchment makes the possibility of productive and civil dialogue less likely.”