Family Matters: Vaccination or Education?

 When I came across a New York court case dealing with immunizations and school, it caught my attention, probably because my daughter received a nice rash along with her toy dinosaur after getting her MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine a few weeks ago.  

My husband and I are pro-vaccination as we believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of any vaccine given to our child. Yes, I was annoyed that she broke out in a rash, but thankfully it did not seem to bother her in the least and the only real inconvenience was having to reschedule her pictures so I wasn’t paying for memories of her looking like a Dalmatian. All of that being said, the debate about whether or not to vaccinate your kiddos is not the subject of this article – it’s about the recent ruling of Judge William F. Kuntz, II, of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Like Michigan, New York requires students to be vaccinated against certain illnesses prior to attending day care, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and grades 1-12. A parent or guardian can, however, request an exemption to the immunization policy by having the child’s doctor fill out a form detailing why it would be harmful to the child to be immunized. If you are objecting for religious reasons, New York requires that the student, parent, or guardian hold “genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practice of immunization.” If you are denied the exemption, you can of course, in the spirit of the American judicial system, appeal this decision. For the first appeal, your child can stay in school. However, if your appeal is denied, and you decide to give it one last go ‘round with the New York State Commissioner of Education, your child cannot attend school during that time period.
The crux of the recent case surrounded New York’s policy excluding unvaccinated children from school when there was an outbreak of a vaccine preventable disease. Three families sued, two of which had already secured religious exemptions to the vaccination policy. Their children were not permitted to attend school during a chickenpox outbreak. The third family filed suit due to having the exemption denied on both medical and religious grounds. The main allegations were violations of the families’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Judge Kuntz ruled in favor of public health over the religious exemption, and upheld the policy allowing New York to bar unvaccinated children from school during vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, based on case law from the early 1900’s. In Jacobson v Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 US 11 (1905), Henning Jacobson was appealing his $5 fine (big bucks back then) which he received for failure to comply with an order to be vaccinated for smallpox during an outbreak. The Supreme Court upheld the fine, helping to cement the government’s ability to require vaccinations for public health reasons.
The New York ruling will assist other states in preventing unvaccinated children from attending school during a disease outbreak, which could be a good thing depending on what your beliefs are regarding immunizations. At a minimum, I’m sure this adds some interesting talking points in the current debate of the balance between public, individual, corporation, and religious rights that the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case brought into the spotlight.
Marie Matyjaszek is a family law attorney whose blog site is: She can be reached by e-mailing her at

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