Constitutionality of Requiring Vaccines for School Children

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which is the federal appeals court that has jurisdiction over federal courts in Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states, upheld the constitutionality of a West Virginia law requiring all children to be immunized for diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus, and whooping cough as a condition to be admitted to public schools. The mother argued that her child suffered from health problems that appeared around the time she began receiving vaccinations. She also said that her religious beliefs forbade her from permitting her child to receive vaccinations.

Even assuming that the mother’s religious beliefs prohibited vaccinations, the Court held, the vaccination law did not violate the mother’s constitutional right to free exercise of her religion. The court also ruled that the law did not violate her constitutional right as a parent to do what she reasonably believes is best for her child. And, to the extent that any of these or other individual constitutional rights might be implicated by the vaccination law, the court held that those rights must give way to, “the compelling interest of society in fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs.”

The West Virginia law at issue did not have an exemption for religious beliefs, but Maryland’s law does. It permits the student or if the student is a minor, the student’s parent, to object to the immunization because it conflicts with the student’s or parent’s bona fide religious beliefs and practices. In that case, the student may enroll without being required to present a physician’s certificate of immunization.

Maryland law does not allow parents to avoid vaccination by a conscientious or philosophical vaccine exemption. The only other way to avoid vaccination is by the school with a medical exemption letter written by a licensed Maryland physician. But, if an outbreak of a disease occurs for which there could have been a vaccination, the child will not be permitted to attend school.

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