New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s comments on Monday—later clarified—that the government has to find a “balance” between public health policy and giving parents "some measure of choice" has renewed the debate over vaccine laws. But it’s instructive to remember that the Supreme Court settled the question of compulsory vaccinations more than 100 years ago. And just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which sits in Manhattan, cited that century-old precedent in rejecting a constitutional challenge to a New York law requiring that all kids attending public schools be vaccinated.
The case involved a group of parents who had religious objections to the law. Two of the parents, both of them Catholic, had obtained religious exemptions for their children, which the law permits so long as the parents “hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against vaccines; the law also contains a separate exemption for medical reasons. The parents balked, however, when their kids were excluded from school after a schoolmate contracted chicken pox. It turns out a separate New York regulation provides that children with immunization exemptions be excluded from attendance in the event of an outbreak.
Unhappy with both the law and the regulation, the parents sued in federal court. A third parent also sued, but on the grounds that she couldn’t obtain a religious exemption. At a hearing, the woman had testified that decisions about her child’s health were guided “strictly by the word of God.” But the judge, after hearing the woman testify that vaccination “could hurt my daughter. It could kill her.... It could cause any number of things,” found the woman’s religious beliefs to be neither genuine nor sincere, but merely health-related. The court denied her request.
That’s when the three parents joined forces and mounted a constitutional challenge to New York’s vaccination requirement. They threw the book at the state, arguing, among other things, violations of their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as under state and municipal law. The rub of their arguments: that the state was infringing on their liberty and religious interests. A federal judge in Brooklyn dismissed all their claims.
That’s when the Second Circuit court, as it’s wont to do on appeal, took up all of these grievances anew and rejected them one by one. Citing Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the 1905 case,a three-judge panel ruled in a short opinion that New York was well within its “police power” to mandate vaccinations for schoolchildren. Since immunizations are “in the interest of the population as a whole,” the court said they trump the parents’ individual wishes. The court brushed aside their claim that “a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that vaccines cause more harm to society than good,” noting that only the legislature—and not the parents or the court—could make the call on the alleged body of evidence.
Turning to the parents’ religious claims, the court relied on a 1944 case, Prince v. Massachusetts, where the Supreme Court stated that a parent “cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds.” The court went on to note that the First Amendment right to religious freedom “does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” And because the law compelling vaccinations is neutral—that is, it applies to everyone and doesn’t specifically target a particular religion—no constitutional violation occurred. Plus, two of the parents had received exemptions, so the court viewed New York’s limited exclusion during an outbreak as permissible.
Of course, the ruling is only binding within the context of public education; nothing prevents the parents from homeschooling their children and keeping them vaccination-free. And it remains to be seen whether these parents will be appealing to a higher court to review the case. But given that the Supreme Court has already spoken loudly on the matter, here’s hoping faith in the judgment of the courts and the rule of law will prevail.