School District Upheld on Mandatory Vaccinations

By Mark Walsh — November 19, 2009 2 min read
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A federal district judge has ruled for a West Virginina school district and its officials in a case in which a parent sought to exempt her daughter from mandatory vaccinations for medical and religious reasons.

The ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of Charleston, W.Va., is interesting in light of the debate over links between vaccines and autism, as well as public debate over school vaccinations for the H1N1 virus.

The suit was 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 turned down the request on the advice of the West Virginia state health department, according to court documents.

The mother sued the district and its officials, claiming, among other things, that the vaccination requirement violates 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.

In his Nov. 3 opinion in Workman v. Mingo County Schools, Judge Goodwin said West Virginia is one of only two states that does not offer religious exemptions for school vaccines. (He doesn’t identify the other state.)

The judge granted summary judgment to the Mingo County school district on 11th Amendment immunity grounds. Unfortunately for the mother, the school district has been under state control since 2005, which means for immunity purposes it is considered an arm of the state, and under the 11th Amendment, the state may not be sued without its consent. (The judge said a regular county school system in West Virginia--one not under state control--would not have such immunity.)

Judge Goodwin did reach the merits of the mother’s constitutional claims with respect to several school official defendants.

“Ms. Workman’s freedom of religion claim fails,” the judge said. “Her beliefs do not exempt her from complying with West Virginia’s mandatory immunization program. It has long been recognized that local authorities may constitutionally mandate vaccinations.”

He cited a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, and a 1944 decision, Prince v. Massachusetts, as well as a number of lower-court rulings that support the idea that, as the judge put it, “Although most states have chosen to provide a religious exemption from compulsory immunization, a state need not do so.”

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