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  • Federal Judge Upholds New York City Policy Barring Unvaccinated Students from Attending School During Periods of Disease Outbreak

    On June 04, 2014, Judge William F. Kuntz II of the Eastern District of New York upheld a controversial New York City policy that prohibits unvaccinated children from attending school when a classmate becomes infected with a vaccine-preventable disease, such as the chicken pox or measles.

    New York State requires all children be vaccinated prior to attending school, but allows exemptions for children whose parents “hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs” that are contrary to immunization. In order to qualify for this religious exemption, a parent does not need to establish that his or her religion specifically prohibits vaccination; rather, a parent must provide school administrators with a written statement expressing “sincere and genuine” religious objection to immunization. It is within the school administrators’ discretion to accept or reject the parent’s written objection and issue a vaccination waiver which thereby allows the child to attend school without first receiving vaccinations.

    However, last year, New York City enacted stricter vaccine requirements for students in public schools and school officials issued fewer vaccination waivers than in recent years. Pursuant to this newly enacted New York City policy (the “Policy”), while parents who qualify for the religious exemption are not required to vaccinate their children, unvaccinated students are required to stay home from school during outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as the chicken pox or measles. In other words, if a classmate becomes ill with chicken pox, measles, mumps, or any other kind of vaccine-prevented disease, the unvaccinated child must refrain from attending school until his or her classmate returns to good health.

    The instant case consolidated separate challenges from three families who claim the Policy violates their constitutional rights. Two of the families received religious exemptions but challenged the Policy’s constitutionality, while the third family filed suit on slightly different grounds, alleging that the City had inappropriately denied her daughter a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement. Further, all three families allege that the Policy, which requires their unvaccinated children to stay home from school during the course of a disease outbreak, violates their First Amendment rights to religious freedom and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, in addition to the New York State constitution and human rights law.

    In support of the current Policy, the City argues the Policy is an essential part of its efforts to combat mass outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, which have reemerged in startling numbers throughout the City in recent years. Pursuant to the herd immunity theory, if a certain percentage of the population receives immunizations, disease outbreaks are prevented because a disease cannot spread to enough susceptible people during its incubation period to sustain itself. From a public health standpoint, the small unvaccinated percentage of the population threatens efforts to eradicate preventable diseases from society and jeopardizes herd immunity in New York City schools.

    In upholding the Policy and dismissing the families’ complaint, Judge Kuntz reiterated the government’s right to require immunizations as a matter of public health and cited a 109-year-old Supreme Court ruling on public health as precedent in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court “has strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations” wrote Judge Kurtz, who also referenced Second Circuit decisions to support his decision to uphold the Policy. The lawyer for the families plans to appeal the federal court’s decision.

    This case exemplifies the growing debate about vaccination exemptions and is just one of several similar lawsuits filed across the country in recent years. As the law currently stands, parents in New York City do not have the right to send their unvaccinated kids to school if another student has a vaccine-preventable illness. However, the issue of vaccinations in America is one of increasing dispute and the current State and City law are subject to change at any time. Schools must stay apprised to the current climate to ensure their immunization policies and discretionary review of parents’ written vaccination objections sufficiently balances a student’s constitutional freedoms and the school’s obligation to safeguard the health of the community at-large.

    If your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or call him at (516) 357-3750. This article was written with Hayley Dryer, an associate at the firm.