An Albany County (New York) Supreme Court ruling early this month was a victory for reason over religion.
Acting Justice Denise Hartman dismissed a lawsuit in the case against a new state law removing the possibility of religious exemptions for vaccinations of school-age children.
Hartman ruled that in passing new vaccine rules, revised by the Legislature in June, lawmakers “relied on a vast body of caselaw that has consistently found vaccination mandates to be constitutional and in the interest of public health,” Courthouse News Service reported.
The new rules were passed after two orthodox Jewish communities in New York “became the epicenter” of the country’s largest measles outbreak in more than 20 years. Under the new rules, while parents claiming religious objections can no longer enroll their unvaccinated children in public, private or home schools, the state will still allow vaccination exemptions for children for whom innoculations pose a significant health risk.
One of the key claims by the anonymous plaintiffs in the case was that legislators passed the law with “profound religious hostility.” Hartman explicitly demurred.
“While acknowledging respect for religious beliefs, the legislative memoranda expressed the collective legislative view that public health concerns should prevail,” the justice wrote in her formal opinion. “The fact that the Legislature enacted the repeal without public hearings and debate does not suggest religious animus. The Legislature is entitled to rely on findings and recommendations of the CDC and other public health officials; it was not required to hold factfinding hearings and debates about the science and medicine of vaccinations and the impacts on those with sincerely held religious beliefs before enacting the repeal.”
Plaintiffs further argued that legislators characterized their religious objections to vaccines as “garbage” and that those objecting were “selfish and misguided in their views of the science.”
“Here, the comments of some legislators, even if susceptible to inferences of discriminatory animus and even taking such inferences as true, would not transmute the collective decision of the New York State Legislature and governor to repeal the religious exemption from a neutral law of general applicability to one that targets religious beliefs,” Hartman wrote.
In other words, the justice was saying that whatever lawmakers may have said, their primary motivation in passing the new law, which is now universally applicable to everyone, was to protect public health in general, not to demonize religion.
She wrote that all legislative actions leading up to passage of the new rules “lead to the inexorable conclusion” that the repeal was driven by public health worries, not religious animus,” Courthouse News reported.
Citing science, Hartman also rebuffed plaintiffs’ argument that less draconian means than limiting religious freedom were available to protect public health, such as immediately removing infected kids from schools.
“Because an infected person may be asymptomatic while still being contagious, waiting for an outbreak to manifest places exposed, unvaccinated persons at risk of serious illness or death,” she wrote in her 33-page opinion states.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, listed among defendants in the case, lauded Hartman’s ruling.
“Vaccines ensure the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities,” she said in a statement. “This law will help protect New Yorkers from experiencing any additional public health crises, which is why we vigorously defended it. We are pleased with the decision by the court.”
The New York’s ruling joins those of several other states (California, Maine, West Virginia and Mississippi) who have defeated similar anti-vaccination lawsuits against their elimination of all personal and religious objections to innoculations.
I wrote in an earlier post — “Hey, U.S. anti-vaxxers: Kids of Samoans who think like you are dying” — about the high percentage of children who sickened and died in a recent measles epidemic. And another post about the global risks: “Religious anti-vaxxers risking everyone’s health for God. Would Jesus?”
The bottom line is we should celebrate rational court rulings in New York and elsewhere that give primacy to science-informed public health laws over religious sensibilities.
After all, why should any American’s health be jeopardized by someone else’s religious fantasies?
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