Federal Judge Upholds California Vaccination Law

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 5, 2016

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Last week, a federal court in California upheld the state’s repeal of a “personal belief” exemption to its vaccination law. The ruling will allow California to compel parents to vaccinate children who are entering public and private education or childcare facilities regardless of any objections the parents make.

California Repeals Personal Belief Exemption to Vaccination Requirement

In June, 2015 the California legislature passed SB 277, which restructured the State’s position on vaccinations for children who enter public or private education facilities and childcare centers. In addition to requiring parents to vaccinate their children against common diseases such as diptheria, measles, mumps, and rubella (among others), SB 277 removed a prior exemption to the vaccination requirement which allowed parents to object based on “personal beliefs.” The law was passed in response to a 2014 outbreak of measles that was traced back to children who had not been vaccinated.

The personal beliefs exemption had opened the door for parents who declined immunization for religious or other reasons to enroll unvaccinated children in school. Parents who filed a personal belief exemption to California’s vaccination requirement prior to January 1, 2016 could keep their child enrolled in public school unless the child was entering a checkpoint – defined as entering a new phase of education (i.e., kindergarten, middle school, etc).  After SB 277, the only children in California who can enroll in school without the appropriate immunization are those who have a medical exemption.

California’s Vaccination Mandate Faces Federal Lawsuit

Seventeen parents joined by four anti-vaccination organizations who supported and/or exercised the personal belief exemption to vaccinations filed a lawsuit against California alleging that SB 277 violated their federal and state constitutional rights to decline immunizations. The plaintiffs asked a federal court to grant an injunction stopping enforcement of SB 277 and allowing them to continue to take advantage of the personal belief exemption. According to the complaint, California’s repeal of the personal belief exemption would prevent 33,000 children from going to school unless their parents agree to have them vaccinated.

The plaintiffs argued that both the federal constitution and California’s constitution granted them a right to make parenting choices, even if those choices butt heads with established vaccination policy. The complaint claimed that parents have a right to dictate their children’s medical and educational decisions, and the state could not infringe upon that right by imposing strict vaccination requirements. The state responded that public health concerns can, and in this case do, trump parental rights when the exercise of those rights places other citizens at risk.

Federal Court Upholds California’s Repeal of Vaccination Exemption

US District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego denied the plaintiff’s request for an injunction, finding that they did not have a right to the personal belief exemption to vaccinations. Judge Sabraw carefully deconstructed each of the plaintiff’s attempts to argue their right to parental choice superseded California’s vaccination requirements before ultimately dismissing the complaint. According to Judge Sabraw, SB 277 is a generally applicable law which does not affect a protected class of citizens with rights that cannot be overcome by California’s compelling interest to promote public health by mandating that all public school children receive immunizations.

At the heart of Judge Sabraw’s legal reasoning was California’s right to protect the general public from potentially fatal outbreaks of disease. Judge Sabraw pointed to years of legal cases which have supported the right of states to enforce public health initiatives such as vaccinations because of compelling local interests in controlling the spread of disease, particularly among children. Although Judge Sabraw acknowledged that parents who object to vaccinations will need to compromise on the exercise of some of their other rights, he ultimately ruled in a manner that is consistent with the legal history of vaccination laws.

Going forward, all children who seek to enroll in a California school or daycare will need to provide immunization records. The ruling will likely be appealed, but California’s vaccination law will remain in place until a federal judge says otherwise.

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