Compulsory Vaccination and Parental Rights

August 2013, Volume 36, Issue 12

Modern state school vaccination laws mandate that children be vaccinated prior to attending public or private schools. What are the consequences for failing to vaccinate children or failing to maintain records showing that children have been vaccinated?

In extreme cases, if children have not been vaccinated, a school may be required to close its doors. Many state statutes require schools to maintain immunization records and to report information to public health officials in order to receive funds from federal immunization programs. Failure to maintain these records could negatively impact a school’s receipt of these funds. Parents should be aware that failure to vaccinate their children can result in children being precluded from attending school, civil fines, and even criminal penalties (though that’s rare).

Parents have challenged state vaccination programs in several ways. Vaccination programs have been challenged as:

  1. Inconsistent with federal constitutional principles of individual liberty and due process;
  2. Unwarranted governmental interferences on individual autonomy; and
  3. An infringement of personal religious beliefs under First Amendment principles.

The seminal case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), squarely addressed the constitutionality of compulsory vaccinations. Massachusetts enacted a law that allowed municipal boards of health to require vaccination of its inhabitants for smallpox, if necessary for public health and safety. Hennily Jacobson refused the vaccination, was convicted in trial court, and was ordered to pay five dollars. Jacobson appealed the trial court’s decision all the way to the Supreme Court, where she argued that the compulsory vaccination violated her constitutional liberty interest in her bodily integrity. The court found Ms. Jacobson’s argument to be unpersuasive, and determined that a state may enact reasonable regulations to protect the public health and the public safety. Further, the court concluded that compulsory immunization is a permissible exercise of the state’s power.

While the legislature may provide for compulsory vaccination, there are limitations to that power. A North Carolina court, in State v. Hay (1900), determined that a parent will have a sufficient excuse for non-compliance with a compulsory vaccination program if the condition of a child’s health is such that it would be dangerous to submit to a vaccination.

In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court has determined that a parent’s personal or religious beliefs, in regards to their child’s upbringing, must give way when the health and safety of children is threatened or when parental conduct poses some substantial threat to public safety. State statutes, however, often include a statutory exception to vaccine requirements where a family’s religious beliefs would prohibit vaccination.

In light of cases such as Dalli v. Board of Education (1971), courts have determined that statutory provisions exempting adherents and members of recognized churches or religious denominations from required vaccinations are unconstitutional as violations of the Equal Protection and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment because they do not treat all claims for religious exemption equally.

In contrast, statutes that have a religious exception, but do not require membership in a recognized church or religious denomination, will be upheld as constitutional. For example, in the case of In re Christine M. (1992), a father was prosecuted for failing to vaccinate his child for measles during an outbreak of a measles epidemic. The father had become affiliated with a religious organization. While the church did not have any doctrines against vaccinations, the father began educating himself regarding the relationships between food and disease, and determined that his daughter would not be vaccinated. The court determined that the statute’s religious exception did not violate the Establishment or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment because the statute did not require the parent to be a member of an organized religion to claim the exemption. The court, in Check v. New York v. New York City Department of Education (2013), determined that parents must show that their beliefs are (1) religious, (2) genuine, and (3) sincere. The court concluded that the father’s beliefs stemmed from medical and scientific concerns, not religious beliefs, and therefore failed to meet the standard for exemption under the statute.

The exceptions to compulsory vaccinations for parents and children are limited indeed. It is therefore imperative that parents vaccinate their children according to the school’s requirements, and that school’s maintain adequate documentation of vaccine records. These efforts will result in a healthy and successful year for students, parents, teachers, and principals alike.

This article is brought to you by Elizabeth S. Lawton and Maggie B. Burrus of Shuman McCuskey & Slicer, PLLC, Charleston and Morgantown, West Virginia.

Copyright © 2013 National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.

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