SAN DIEGO – A group of parents and the nonprofit Education 4 All in California are suing the state over a new law (Senate Bill 277) requiring children to be vaccinated to attend school, which went into effect July 1.
California has permitted unvaccinated students to attend schools for more than 50 years, but last year's measles outbreak led legislators to pass a law removing the personal belief exemption (not medical exemptions) that about 3 percent of parents claimed to avoid vaccinating their children.
“The case is very unlikely to lead to striking down SB277,” Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings College of Law, told the Northern California Record. “Opponents have tried to strike down immunization requirements for decades, and the courts have repeatedly rejected such challenges because immunization requirements protect children and the community.”
The parents, who filed the case under Education 4 All, are claiming that the new law violates their religious freedom, but state and federal courts have rejected that argument in the past because there is no precedent for that, Reiss said. The lawsuit could identify areas of the law that still need to be interpreted, including a portion about Individualized Education Programs (IEP), but all new laws have to be interpreted, she said. The case may also affect how the law is applied and exemptions for one or two students may be enacted, but the entire law is not going to be struck down.
To set a country-wide precedent the case has to make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reiss said she believes the case will be appealed.
“If the Supreme Court takes it and rules the precedent will be binding in the U.S.,” Reiss said.
If the Supreme Court decides not to hear the case the ruling would only be binding in the 9th Circuit Court, she said.
This is not the first time parents have gone to court over immunization requirements. West Virginia and New York have both had similar cases and in both cases, the claims were denied.
“No court in the U.S., state or federal, has ever struck down immunization requirements or required non-medial exemptions,” Reiss said, although some courts say if religious exemptions are permitted it must apply to all religions.
Currently, the law is in place and unvaccinated children may not attend California schools, however, that could change before the new school year begins. The parents have asked the court for an injunction, which would postpone the law until the case is decided.
“If the court grants it, the children can attend without vaccination. If not, they cannot,” Reiss said.
The hearing for that decision is set for Aug. 12.