Court Declines Review of School Vaccine, Religious-Flier Cases

By Mark Walsh — November 14, 2011 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear appeals concerning mandated vaccines in public schools and a school district’s refusal to allow a religious group’s fliers to be sent home with students.

The vaccine case involves a suit filed by Jennifer Workman, who feared exposing her 6-year-old daughter to mandatory vaccines required for school because the child’s older sister developed developmental disorders that the mother attributes to vaccines. The mother submitted a doctor’s note seeking to exempt the 6-year-old from vaccines, but the Mingo County School District, in West Virginia, turned down the request on the advice of the state health department, according to court documents.

The mother sued the district and its officials, claiming, among other things, that the vaccination requirement violated her First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The mother’s “Christian Bapticostal religious beliefs require that she honor God by protecting her child from harm and illness, and that immunizing [the 6-year-old] in this instance would violate those sincerely held beliefs,” her suit said.

A federal district judge in 2009 granted summary judgment to the school district on 11th Amendment immunity grounds. The district was under state control and thus was an arm of the state for immunity purposes, the judge said.

In a March 2011 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled unanimously that the West Virginia law requiring vaccinations does not unconstitutionally infringe Workman’s right to free exercise of religion.

“It has been settled law for many years that claims of religious freedom must give way in the face of the compelling interest of society in fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs,” the 4th Circuit court said, borrowing from another court’s opinion.

The mother appealed to the Supreme Court, backed by the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute. But the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Workman v. Mingo County Board of Education (Case No. 11-380).

In the religious-flier case, a group called the Victory Through Jesus Sports Ministry Foundation sued a Missouri school district over a policy that limited the school distribution of backpack fliers—information from outside groups sent home in elementary students’ backpacks.

The Lee’s Summit school district modified its policy in 2009 to limit community youth organizations to a one-time flier distribution in the fall, while other non-profit groups were allowed to distribute throughout the school year.

The Victory Through Jesus foundation, which runs faith-based summer soccer camps, said the fall distribution was of little use, and it sued the district claiming a violation of its free speech and equal protection rights. The group lost in federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis.

In a May 2011 decision, a three-judge panel of the court ruled unanimously that the school district did not create a limited public forum with its flier-distribution policy.
The court said the district first adopted limitations to flier distribution to respond to parent complaints about the volume of materials coming home with their children.

“On this record, we conclude that the District adopted reasonable restrictions on
the backpack distribution of flyers to elementary school students, that it applied those
restrictions in a viewpoint neutral manner, and that it imposed no substantial
restriction on Victory’s right to access this nonpublic forum,” the 8th Circuit said.

The school district eventually eliminated all backpack distribution of fliers, the court said.

In an appeal to the Supreme Court backed by Liberty Counsel, of Maitland, Fla., the Victory Through Jesus foundation said the district’s policy gave administrators unbridled discretion to pick and choose which groups to permit year-round distribution rights.

But the high court declined without comment to hear the group’s appeal in Victory Through Jesus Sports Ministry Foundation v. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District (No. 11-402).

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.