N.Y. Court: During Outbreaks, Schools Can Make Unvaccinated Students Stay Home

By Evie Blad — January 07, 2015 3 min read
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This is a cross post from the School Law Blog.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected a federal constitutional challenge to New York state’s school vaccination law, saying it is well-settled that requiring vaccinations to attend school is within the “police power” of the states.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, also unanimously upheld a state regulation that permits officials to temporarily exclude from school students who have valid medical or religious exemptions from vaccination when there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.

Despite court rulings that have generally ruled for schools and state authorities on vaccination requirements, vaccine skeptics and opponents continue to challenge such rules. A recent New York City requirement that all children under age 6 who attend preschool or day care receive the flu vaccine has sparked opposition among some parents.

The flu vaccine mandate isn’t at issue in three consolidated cases involving New York City families that were before the 2nd Circuit court. One mother challenged the denial of a religious exemption for her child, while two other families that received such exemptions challenged the state rule that excluded their children from school during an outbreak of chickenpox.

All three families challenged the state law and regulation on grounds that they violated their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and their 14th Amendment right to due process of law.

A federal district judge rejected the arguments, which Evie Blad reported on in Rules for Engagement. In its Jan. 7 decision in Phillips v. City of New York, the 2nd Circuit court panel also rejected all of the families’ arguments.

The appeals court said the argument that New York’s mandatory vaccination requirement violates the families’ due-process rights was foreclosed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1905 decision inJacobson v. Massachusetts. That case held that it was within the common-law “police powers” of a state to require vaccinations for admission to schools to preserve public health.

“Plaintiffs argue that a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that vaccines cause more harm to society than good,” the 2nd Circuit said in its unsigned opinion. “But as Jacobson made clear, that is a determination for the legislature, not the individual objectors. Plaintiffs’ substantive due process challenge to the mandatory vaccination regime is therefore no more compelling than Jacobson’s was more than a century ago.”

The court next considered the free-exercise-of-religion claims of two of the families to the state regulation that allowed officials to bar their children, who had religious exemptions from vaccinations, from school during the chickenpox outbreak.

The appeals court noted that no free exercise claim was raised in the Jacobson case because in 1905 that clause had not been held binding on the states. But in dictum in a 1944 decision, Princev. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court said “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

The 2nd Circuit said it agreed with a 2011 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., that “following the reasoning of Jacobson and Prince, ... mandatory vaccination as a condition for admission to school does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.”

Thus, New York state could require vaccinations for all children, the 2nd Circuit court said, though like many others it provides a religious exemption.

“Because the state could bar [the plaintiffs’] children from school altogether, a fortiori, the state’s more limited exclusion during an outbreak of a vaccine‐preventable disease is clearly constitutional,” the 2nd Circuit court said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.