As religious and philosophical exemptions from required vaccines have surged in some areas, schools and public health departments have required unvaccinated children to stay home from school to stop or slow the spread of vaccine-preventable illnesses. We saw that in Ohio recently, when public health officials warned that unvaccinated students may have to sit out for 25 days or longer if a mumps outbreak in the area spreads to its schools. Such long absences are required because it may take a few weeks for symptoms to start appearing after people get sick, public health officials said, giving plenty of time for them to spread the illness to others in the meantime.
A federal judge in New York recently upheld a similar requirement in New York City schools after families who’d claimed religious exemptions from vaccine mandates argued that the required absences violated their First Amendment freedoms, the New York Times reported.
In his ruling, the judge cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In that case, the high court upheld a $5 fine charged to a man who refused a mandatory innoculation during a smallpox outbreak. From that decision:
The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the state subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination; that a compulsory vaccination law is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every free man to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best; and that the execution of such a law against one who objects to vaccination, no matter for what reason, is nothing short of an assault upon his person. But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members ... Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others."
In a similar manner, New York is not infringing on unvaccinated students’ rights by requiring that they stay home because the city has a legitimate public health interest in doing so, the federal judge ruled.
The attorney for the families rejected the relevance of the Supreme Court precedent, arguing that there was “‘no way that court anticipated that children would be subjected’ to the vaccines they must get today,” the New York Times reported.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.