The Second Circuit yesterday rejected a Constitutional challenge to New York’s requirement that children be vaccinated to attend public school, and upheld a school’s decision to exclude from class, during a chicken pox outbreak, students with a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement.
In Phillips v. City of New York, two Catholic parents received a religious exemption from the statutory vaccination requirement for their children. The statute provides an exemption for children of parents who have “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against vaccination. A state regulation provides that school officials may exclude children with an exemption from school “in the event of an outbreak … of a vaccine-preventable disease in a school.” Plaintiffs’ children were excluded from school when a fellow student was diagnosed with chicken pox.
Plaintiffs first argued that mandatory vaccination violates substantive due process. The Court upheld New York’s requirement, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), that school vaccination is a proper exercise of the State’s police powers. The Second Circuit rejected the argument that an alleged growing body of scientific evidence against vaccinations altered this rule.
The Court next addressed the exclusion of plaintiffs’ children from school during the chicken pox outbreak, which plaintiffs alleged to be an unconstitutional burden on their free exercise of religion. The Second Circuit held that the law was neutral and of general applicability, and therefore the State need nor show a compelling government interest, even if there was an incidental burden on religion. The Court cited the Supreme Court’s statement in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), that “[t]he 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 Court determined that because the State could exclude unvaccinated children from school altogether, the more limited exclusion during a chicken pox outbreak was Constitutional.
Another plaintiff on the appeal was not granted a religious exemption from vaccination for her children. The District Court had adopted the Magistrate Judge’s findings that this plaintiff’s objections to vaccination were health-related and not based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs. The Second Circuit held that this determination had not been appealed and could not therefore be addressed.