SCOTUS denies appeal in NY vaccination case

In its customary list fashion under the heading “Certiorari Denied” on October 5, the US Supreme Court denied an appeal from a group that wants to overturn New York’s law that allows a school to send students home if they aren’t vaccinated against a disease and another student at the school is diagnosed with that disease, the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin reports.

Dr George E Peoples explains in November 2011 how cancer vaccines help to combat breast cancer during an interview at San Antonio Military Medical Center. He’s a principal investigator at the facility, which helped to develop a vaccine that’s offering breast cancer survivors hope for a cancer-free future. (Linda Hosek / Army Medicine via Flickr CC)

The law also allows parents of school-age children to obtain a medical or religious exemption from having their children vaccinated, but a parent’s decision to opt out of vaccines in no way restricts a school’s right to send that child home.

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled earlier this year, in the case of Phillips v City of New York, that the law was constitutional, and that brought the petition for appeal from families, who said their children were unjustifiably missing school for extended periods. The attorney for the plaintiffs, Patricia Finn, claimed that non-vaccinated children were being singled out unfairly, which would violate their rights under the 14th Amendment.

The crux of her argument was that since newly vaccinated children could be at risk for up to 28 days after the vaccination (in some cases), the penalty should apply equally to those students.

The original decision in the case held that the law doesn’t violate the students’ First Amendment free exercise rights or their 14th Amendment substantive due process or equal protection rights by requiring that their school exclude them from attendance each time a schoolmate reported a case of a “vaccine preventable disease.” The court came to this conclusion because the Constitution doesn’t provide any constitutional right for religious objectors to be exempt from New York’s compulsory inoculation law.

The court also dismissed the students’ equal protection claim because the students had failed to present any evidence that the law favored one religion over another or that the students are members of a protected class.

What it means for parents who opt-out their kids from testing

Although vaccines are very different from standardized tests, the rights asserted by parents, for which I can find no constitutional basis, are in many critical ways similar in the New York vaccine case and the cases involving parents who opt their kids out of standardized tests or other mandated school programs.

In both cases, parents assert that their kids don’t have to participate in public school programs that are mandated by state or federal laws that have passed constitutional muster. The vaccine laws are perhaps wiser than the standardized testing laws, but they are no less constitutional.

The Second Circuit didn’t say parents don’t have the right to opt out their kids from school programs or any other state law, though. What the ruling instead means is that a parent’s right to do that, if it exists in the first place, either as a fundamental right, a constitutional right, or a legislated right, doesn’t change the school’s rights under the law. So, if a school decides to send non-vaccinated Student A home when the vaccine-preventable disease Student B has puts Student A in danger, the school is within its rights.

Likewise, should a school decide to punish a student for disobedience when he opts out of tests, those rights would seem to be guaranteed by the Second Circuit’s ruling and the Supreme Court’s denial of the appeal in Phillips v New York. A parent has rights, but those rights not to comply with a federal law or state law don’t supersede a school’s rights to comply with the appropriate laws. And this applies, I would think, whether those laws are wise or unwise.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.