NEW York’s Attorney General Letitia James, above – named as co-defendent in a legal challenge to the state’s recent ban of religious exemptions to vaccinations – has been vindicated.
Albany County Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought against James and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, in June, signed a bill ending vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs. It was the latest move to address the growing measles outbreak, the worst the US had experienced in decades.
In dismissing the lawsuit, bought by a group of anonymous anti-vaxxers, Acting Justice Denise Hartman said:
While acknowledging respect for religious beliefs, the legislative memoranda expressed the collective legislative view that public health concerns should prevail.
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 fact-finding hearings and debates about the science and medicine of vaccinations and the impacts on those with sincerely held religious beliefs before enacting the repeal.
In welcoming the ruling James said:
Vaccines ensure the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities. 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.
New York changed its vaccine rules when two Jewish orthodox communities in New York became the epicenter of the country’s biggest measles outbreak in over two decades. While the state continues to honour medical exemptions, parents can no longer use religious objections to enroll their unvaccinated children in school.
Challenges to New York’s vaccination crackdown have largely seen sweeping defeats in courts across the state this year. Hartman also pointed out that California, Maine, West Virginia and Mississippi have all eliminated all personal belief and religious exemptions to vaccinations.
The plaintiffs said there were less restrictive means of protecting the public health, such as by removing unvaccinated kids from school during outbreaks. Hartman leaned on the science to shoot down this suggestion.
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.
The New York state Legislature apparently concluded, and Hartman agreed, that so-called reactive measures to outbreaks simply aren’t as effective as vaccines.
Hartman refused to give the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction on August 26, shortly before the start of school. They immediately appealed and lost, as state officials pressed on to dismiss the suit.
Attorney for the plaintiffs, Michael Sussman said in a Facebook post that he expects to appeal.
I believe the decision is erroneous in critical regards and that she [the judge] should have denied the motion and provided us the opportunity to further develop a record establishing the profound religious hostility which underlay this legislative action and other arguments we advanced.I also strongly disagree with the notion that such motivation cannot be inferred from the legislative debate or that a little hostility to religion is acceptable.
In a later post he said:
Our religious repeal case is NOT specifically about medicine or the safety of vaccines. Assuming the vaccines are wonderful and safe, people still have religious scruples and my case is about that set of issues.
The plaintiffs, in arguing against the religious exemption ban, unsuccessfully tried to draw a parallel between themselves and the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, which refused to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple based on the owner’s religious beliefs.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that the bakery had discriminated against the couple and issued specific orders for the bakery to follow. Following appeals within the state that affirmed the Commission’s decision, the bakery took the case to the US Supreme Court.
In a 7–2 decision, the Court ruled on narrow grounds that the Commission did not employ religious neutrality, violating Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips’ rights to free exercise, and reversed the Commission’s decision. The Court did not rule on the broader intersection of anti-discrimination laws, free exercise of religion, and freedom of speech, due to the complications of the Commission’s lack of religious neutrality.
The full ruling makes for interesting reading.
The religious exemption ban, plus a host of other measures, ended the NY measles crisis by the beginning of September. Deputy Commissioner for the Health Department’s Division of Disease Control Dr Demetre Daskalakis, above, said:
Staying up to date on vaccines is the best way for people to protect the health and safety of New Yorkers. It only takes one case to start an outbreak. We will continue to urge everyone to confirm that they are immune to measles by looking at their vaccination histories or by consulting with a healthcare provider. Get vaccinated. It is safe and effective.
Ending this outbreak required a major public health response and extensive community collaboration. To battle the outbreak, the City spent over $6 million and dedicated more than 500 staff to the response; disseminated tens of thousands of pro-vaccination booklets; conducted multiple rounds of robocalls; sent letters and texts to local residents; published ads and distributed educational materials in English, Yiddish, and Spanish; launched an ad campaign that appeared at bus shelters, LinkNYC kiosks, and in newspapers as well as online; hosted a tele-Town Hall to counter anti-vaccination propaganda; visited doctor’s offices; and hosted and attended numerous community events, among many other activities.