Law On Vaccine Religious Exemptions: What You Need to Know
Alan G. Phillips, Attorney at Law
P.O. Box 3473
Chapel Hill, NC 27515-3473
a lot of information on the Internet about vaccine religious exemptions.
Unfortunately, much of it is misleading or incorrect. The law on
religious exemptions is inherently complex. The truth is, for most
U.S. citizens, the law on vaccine religious exemptions is not clearly
defined. In addition, law continually changes and evolves, so staying
on top of your rights requires ongoing vigilance.
complete explanation of vaccine religious exemption law is beyond
the scope of an article (which is why I'm writing a book on the
subject -- be on the look-out for this in the near future!), but
an introduction to some of the complicating factors may not be.
in the U.S., vaccine requirements and exemptions (also known as
exceptions or waivers) are addressed at the state law level, as
the federal government lacks authority to address vaccine requirements
and exemptions for state residents (federal laws do address vaccine
requirements and exemptions for immigrants and the military; they
also provides a means of avoiding vaccines in the workplace). Vaccines
are legally required in all U.S. states and territories, but exemptions
are also available in each state and territory that at least some
residents may exercise.
right to refuse immunizations in the exercise of one's religious
beliefs is a right afforded by both state and federal law in all
but two states (Mississippi and West Virginia), primarily by way
of state code and the U.S. Constitution's First and Fourteenth Amendments.
So, right off the bat, vaccine religious exemptions necessarily
involve a potentially complex mixture of state and federal law.
Furthermore, on the state level, there are both statutes and regulations
that must be reviewed to determine fully one's rights and options,
and state constitutions may play a role as well.
are seldom if ever absolute. One person's right to exercise their
religion is limited by opposing rights -- in the case of vaccine
religious exemptions, the state's right to require immunizations
for the presumed benefit of society. Furthermore, determining your
rights is not simply a matter of reading a state statute or a Constitutional
Amendment. While those may be necessary starting places, they contain
only broad generalizations that tell you little if anything about
how that law applies to the specific set of facts and circumstances
in your life. Make no mistake -- the application of those laws can
vary, sometimes radically, with the widely varying circumstances
of different individuals and families.
do we determine, then, how the law applies to specific situations?
We must look to legal precedent, or case law. Legislatures may make
the laws, but it is the courts that interpret it -- on a case-by-case
basis, one individual dispute at a time. When a case in a lower
court is appealed to a higher court, the higher court (or federal
district courts and some state trial courts) may issue a written
"opinion" that serves as guiding precedent for the lower
courts in future similar disputes. So, for starters, then, to determine
what the law is for your specific situation, you must determine
whether or not there is any legal precedent that applies.
to say, the totality of court opinions constituting the body of
precedent in any given area of law, at any given time, can never
precisely address all of the different hypothetical future circumstances
that may arise in that same area of law -- especially where there
is limited precedent in the first place, as is the case with vaccine
religious exemptions. When a situation comes up that doesn't clearly
match any existing precedent, it may be difficult to say with any
certainty what the law is for that specific situation. When precedent
bears some resemblance to a current situation but is distinguishable
from it, there may be opposing arguments about how the existing
precedent applies to the present situation, with corresponding uncertainty
as to the ultimate outcome.
the complexity doesn't end there. Even if there is precedent that
clearly applies to your specific situation, you still have to look
to whether or not that precedent is "binding" or "persuasive."
This depends on whether or not the precedent was issued by a court
within your jurisdiction. If not, it is "persuasive precedent,"
and your local courts don't have to follow it. It may still support
a legal argument for what your rights should be (e.g., how a court
may or should rule if the matter ends up in court), but it won't
determine what your rights are, and the bottom line is, a court
could rule contrary to that precedent -- against you -- if it felt
that doing so was the more just outcome in your particular case
(and as you might well imagine, arguments favoring immunization
often have the advantage).
of the federal precedent pertaining to vaccine religious exemptions
comes from cases that arose in federal courts in New York State.
Those precedent-setting cases were in federal district courts and
the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (which jurisdiction encompasses
the states of New York, Vermont and Connecticut). If you live outside
of New York (with regard to those court opinions from New York District
Courts), or outside of NY, VT and CT (with regard to the opinion
from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals), this precedent is not
binding on the courts in your jurisdiction and serves only as a
legal argument in support of a desired outcome. Sometimes, that
argument is enough to get the exemption without having to take the
case to court (though as a matter of practical reality, the argument
may need to be made by an attorney); other times, it isn't.
frequent question concerns those states with laws that require one
to be a member of an organized religion with tenets in opposition
to immunizations in order to qualify for a religious exemption.
Such laws have been ruled unconstitutional in some state and federal
courts. But that doesn't mean that similar laws in other states
that have not been challenged in court are presently unconstitutional
-- it only means that if such present laws in those other states
were challenged in court, they may be ruled unconstitutional at
that time. So, if you live in a state that has these requirements,
you are legally bound by them unless and until the laws are changed,
despite the likelihood that if challenged, those laws would be ruled
unconstitutional. This doesn't mean there's no possibility of exercising
a religious exemption in those states if you don't belong to the
right kind of church, but if you did succeed, it would probably
be because local officials chose not to spend the time and money
defending a case they were likely to lose, and not because there
was any uncertainty about the enforceability of the law as it currently
common complication to exercising a vaccine religious exemption
is the "practical reality" aspect. Even if you are clear
about your rights under state and federal law and know the strengths
and weaknesses of your position, you still have to deal with local
authorities that may or may not know your legal rights, and who
may or may not cooperate with you even if they do. Sometimes, exercising
an exemption is very straightforward and proceeds without incident.
Other times, local officials resist efforts to exercise a valid
legal exemption. They have sometimes reportedly been rude, uncooperative,
and even coercive or confrontational in their efforts to thwart
efforts to exercise a valid, legal vaccine exemption.
of the time, these folks are genuinely concerned about the health
and safety of you, your children and your community, but sometimes
they overstep their boundaries in their zealousness to "protect"
those concerned. But even those people who successfully exercise
a religious exemption on their own inadvertently leave themselves
susceptible to challenge, because of what they "don't know
that they don't know" about the law on exemptions. For these
reasons, and because of the many inherent legal complexities associated
with vaccine religious exemptions generally, many people wisely
choose to consult a knowledgeable attorney before declaring and
exercising a vaccine religious exemption.
G. Phillips, Esq., is one of the few attorneys in the U.S. with
a focus on vaccine legal exemptions. He can be contacted at: email@example.com,
919-960-5172, P.O. Box 3473, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-3473. Click
here to visit his website and learn about his book, Vaccine Legal
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