Your legal reading for the day

On Wednesday, January 7, a US Second Circuit Court decision affirmed that New York students have to be vaccinated within two weeks of entering public school.

The plaintiffs “argued that the statutory vaccination requirement, which is subject to medical and religious exemptions, violates their substantive due process rights, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, and both state and municipal law.”

One of the plaintiffs, Dina Check, testified that she is Catholic and stated, “How I treat my daughter’s health and her well-being is strictly by the word of God.” I don’t know a single Catholic who would say this; Catholics typically aren’t anti-medicine (with a few notable exceptions, like contraception). She even said this herself – she “testified that she did not know of any tenets of Catholicism that prohibited vaccinations.” She claimed that her child had had adverse reactions to vaccinations before, and that she asked God for guidance and protection. (The Almighty was unavailable for comment.)

Now, New York Public Health Law Section 2164(9) does say that there’s a religious exemption for mandatory vaccination for “children whose parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required.” But in this instance, a judge in a lower court determined that, since Check’s beliefs about vaccines being dangerous didn’t come about until after her kid’s health scares, they couldn’t possibly be genuine and sincere religious beliefs. So the exemption does not apply.

And what about the other constitutionality claims, you ask? Well, the decision goes on in great detail, starting on page 9. It’s a great read, and I’ll leave it to you to finish.

But that’s not the key reason I wanted to comment on this story. The decision was right as the law stands, and I’d say it’s right regardless of the law. I put a priority on saving lives and keeping people healthy, so in my view, the only moral route to take is the one that best protects people from illness – and mandatory vaccination fulfills that role.

No… the issue I have with this is the law itself. The fact that New York even has exemptions for religious beliefs is ridiculous. Viruses don’t care about your religious or ideological positions. When you allow someone to skip vaccinating their kids because their unprovable ‘spiritual’ beliefs say they shouldn’t, you’re acting along the lines of taking away someone else’s life-saving medicine because it contradicts your beliefs. Vaccination is not a private decision; it’s a matter of public health. No man is an island, as the saying goes, and our decisions about how we deal with diseases will have an impact on others regardless of how we think we should handle our own health care.

I’ve seen people make arguments against mandatory vaccination along the lines of a Libertarian-style personal freedom angle, and I say the same thing to them: your personal freedoms do not supersede the rights of the people around you to remain healthy or alive. If you truly value the maximization of personal freedom, the best way to do that is to make sure there are as many persons as possible around to have the freedoms in the first place – and the best way to do that is to prioritize public health over your own self-interest. If you stick to the ‘personal freedoms uber alles’ position in this case, it’s just a matter of logical necessity that you’re valuing personal freedoms over an absence of unnecessary disease and death.

But what’s the chance we’ll be able to change the law to remove the exemption? Slim to none, unfortunately. Making an argument against what would be perceived as a ‘religious freedom’ issue probably won’t work. Anyone who changed the law would likely be challenged by a religious group such as the ACLJ. They would attack the changes on the same grounds that were used in the Hobby Lobby case, which established the ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ standard as a legitimate means of granting health care exemptions. Sadly, this seems to be another case of American law working against the people’s interests, to promote the people’s purported interests.

The only bright side to the story is a heartening quote from the decision:

The Supreme Court has stated in persuasive dictum, however, that a parent “cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds.  The 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.”  Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166-67 (1944)

Hear, hear! This is a citation that skeptics would do well to remember; every time a story comes up about parents allowing their children to get sick or die for religious reasons, we should flood our legal representatives with it! I think it should be more than enough to get laws passed to charge such people with negligent homicide.

But then again, I’m an optimist.

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