The legality of anti-vaccination movements and decisions is one of the more important legal debates of our time. And seeing as most of these legal decisions occur on a state level, rather than the federal level, the recent ruling of an Albany judge has caught everyone’s attention. Denise Hartman, a State Supreme Court Justice, reached a decision that basically eliminated the option of religious exemptions for mandatory vaccination. More specifically, for children in daycare facilities and schools.
This is a pretty monumental decision, as it has eliminated one of the most widely spread ways in which parents supporting anti-vaccination movements deprived their children of mandatory vaccinations. However, Justice Hartman’s decision made clear that the Albany judicial system does not support the circumvention of mandatory vaccines. Her ruling was led both by legal and communal concerns.
In her decision, she cited what amounted to a long line of cases, some of which dated all the way to 1905. Within these cases, she found the required legal precedent for her ruling. More specifically, these precedents demonstrated the power of the state to demand vaccinations in school-age children. Even more crucially, she found that these laws do not violate any constitutional rights, especially the ones regarding religious freedom.
Judge Hartman agreed that people should and do have the right to educate and raise their children according to their views and beliefs. However, both the legal precedents and legal theory in general also argued for compromise. In the sense that the aforementioned rights are naturally limited by the rights of others and the common good. And in this case, that side of the argument carried the day.
In the end, the judge stated that an imminent measles outbreak raised enough public health concerns for her to waive the First Amendment and Equal Protection claims of the anti-vaxxer parents aside. She cited a Supreme Court Decision from 1944, while saying that the constitutional right to practice religion did not, and does not entail the legal right to expose one’s child or the community to communicable diseases, or to ill health and even death.
Crucially, this isn’t a blanket ban on vaccination exemptions for children. There are still some medical cases where vaccines could legitimately threaten the child patient’s health. And in these cases, medical exemption is still a valid option, from a legal point of view.
Opponents of the religious exemption are firm in their stance, in spite of such compromises. They also asked for an injunction against the law, before the start of this academic year. However, Hartman refused this request as well, stating that such stances are not likely to prevail, based on what amounts to a shaky constitutional claim.
The vaccination law opponents are not giving up, however. Their attorney, Michael Sussman, stated that he would definitely spearhead the appeal process for this decision. He added that this repeal of exemptions is a gross violation of multiple constitutional rights. In a Facebook post, Sussman added that he intended to file legal papers with the Appellate Division of the state court system in Albany.
Naturally, while the anti-vaxxer community was outraged, the office of the State Attorney General was extremely pleased with the outcome of the ruling. Letitia James, the sitting Attorney General in Albany, applauded the court’s foresight in the ruling. She further stated that vaccines are crucial for the well-being of the community at large, as well as every single individual. She went on to say that vaccines represent the best insurance of safety and health for children of all ages, as well as their families and imminent surroundings.
With that in mind, she viewed this law as something extremely beneficial for the safety of the local community. According to her, this legal resolution will be the bulwark against further health crises in the entire New York area. In fact, she cited this as the reason why she defended the law with such vigor. And in the end, the effort seems to have paid off—she and her colleagues are well pleased with the court’s decision.
The lawsuit itself centered on the law which the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature enacted in June. This law eliminated the option of religious exemption for mandatory vaccines for school children across the state of New York.
The state authorities made this legislative effort as a reaction to the largest measles outbreak in the last quarter-century, with almost 1,000 cases only in the state of New York.
The aforementioned law doesn’t mandate that all children must receive vaccination. Rather, it doesn’t allow unvaccinated children to attend public daycare programs and public schools. While attending a court hearing a few weeks ago, Sussman argued that due to the state’s legal solution families had ‘nowhere to go’ for the following school year, which is about to begin.
Furthermore, he characterized such lawmaking as being motivated by certain ‘hostility to religion’.
Hartman completely rejected these arguments, along with any claims that the law was a violation of any constitutional rights.
While defending the law, legislators gave arguments along the lines of public health concerns. In the end, the judge’s decision stated that the plaintiffs were not convincing in the argument that the legislation was driven by religious hatred of any kind.
Hartman wrote that the court couldn’t conclude that plaintiffs have reasonably shown the balance of equities tipping in their side’s favor. And she added that the court couldn’t emphasize the potential harm to individuals who aren’t vaccinated enough, if the plaintiffs had their way.
Robert Picard is a freelance writer, mostly focusing on legal topics and the world of shipping and moving companies like Dumbo Moving and Storage Brooklyn. In his spare time, he’s a fan of kayaking, as well as mountain-climbing.