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Md. High Court Invalidates Exemptions From Immunization

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Maryland's highest court has struck down a law that allowed some students religious exemptions from a state requirement that children be immunized against major childhood diseases before starting school on the grounds that it favored "recognized religions."

In a decision handed down on Oct. 5, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the law violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by giving preference to some religions and thus established a state religion.

However, the court upheld the state's mandatory-immunization law, which requires that elementary-school students be immunized against six childhood diseases, and that secondary-school students show evidence of immunity to measles. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such laws, which are now in effect in all states and the District of Columbia, are necessary public-health measures, but that exemptions may be made on religious grounds.

As a result of the decision, Maryland health officials will no longer allow exemptions for religious reasons. All students, regardless of their religion, will be required to have the immunizations. The decision will affect about 500 children in the state who have been granted exemptions and are enrolled in school.

If the state wants to continue to grant religious exemptions, the legislature will have to enact a broader law, according to attorneys working on the case. Some states currently provide exemptions for those who have "philosophical objections" to immunization.

Other courts have addressed the same issue, with varying results, according to state officials. The situation has cropped up frequently as states enacted laws that require schoolchildren to be immunized before starting 1st grade, according to Maryland officials.

The case, Irving Davis Sr. v. State of Maryland, was filed by the father of a 9-year-old boy who had never attended school because Mr. Davis had "personal objections with religious roots" to immunization, according to Barbara Mello, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore's law school and counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis's objections, however, did not qualify his son for an exemption from the immunization law. Under guidelines developed by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, only students whose families were members of two churches--the Church of Christ, Scientist, or the Worldwide Church of God--were permitted exemptions.

But others who objected because immunization violated their personal beliefs, but who were not affiliated with any recognized religion, were denied the exemption, according to Mark Johnson, a health-services specialist for the state health department.

The state developed this policy after investigating many claims of "religious objec-tions" to immunization. In many cases, Mr. Johnson said, parents were simply fearful that their children would be harmed by the immunizations.

Mr. Davis tried to enroll his son in school but was turned away when he refused to have the child immunized, Ms. Mello said. After his refusal, the state prosecuted him under the state truancy law. He was convicted and fined $50. A state trial court upheld that conviction.

In the Court of Appeals trial, attorneys for Mr. Davis argued that the religious-exemption law violated the First Amendment because it favored "recognized religions" over others.

"Our position was that the state cannot be in the business of recognizing religions," Ms. Mello said.

If the state exempted anyone from the immunization law, the attorneys argued, they must recognize personal religious beliefs as well as established religions.

The state, in turn, argued that the law was constitutional.

Attorneys for Mr. Davis also argued that there are no longer compelling public-health reasons for the compulsory-immunization law. The court did not agree.

If the plaintiff wanted to appeal the decision, he would have to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hence, Ms. Mello said, further action is unlikely since it would be asking the Justices "to change their mind on a question on which they've already spoken very clearly."--sw

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