Mississippi Allows Religious Exemptions to Children’s Vaccine Requirements for Schools

Matt McGregor
By Matt McGregor
July 25, 2023Vaccines
Mississippi Allows Religious Exemptions to Children’s Vaccine Requirements for Schools
The Mississippi State Capitol Building in Jackson, Miss., on March 11, 2022. (Peter Forest/Getty Images for MoveOn & Emmett Till Legacy Foundation)

Mississippi has ended its decades-long policy of having one of the strictest childhood vaccine requirements in the nation after a federal judge ruled in favor of religious exemptions.

In April, U.S. District Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden granted a preliminary injunction following an evidentiary hearing before handing down a full order the next day.

Judge Ozerden—appointed by former President George W. Bush—ruled that by July 15 the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) must start accepting religious exemptions and that State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney must institute a process by which parents can request the exemptions.

In 2022, several families filed a complaint for injunctive relief against state officials such as Dr. Edney and several principals. They contended that the statute requiring students to be vaccinated to attend public and private schools violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits legislators enacting policies that infringe upon the practice of one’s religion.

Mississippi is one of six states without a religious exemption for students to attend public school, the others being California, Connecticut, Maine, New York, and West Virginia.

The immunization requirements—which don’t apply to school staff—are diphtheria; tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis B; measles, mumps, rubella; and varicella, according to the MSDH, which says on its website that it has “one of the most successful childhood immunization programs in the nation, and as a result one of the lowest rates of childhood diseases.”

The state allows people to apply for some medical exemptions, and it has no mandate for the COVID-19 vaccination.

The state formerly had a religious exemption that was removed in 1983 after a state court judge declared it invalid in Brown v. Stone, arguing that vaccinated children had a 14th Amendment right to be protected from their unvaccinated peers.

However, the lawsuit (pdf) argues that the court decision failed to consider vaccinated children’s association with unvaccinated children at other gatherings such as “church, the grocery store, or in local sports leagues.”

Among the religious objections parents have is the opposition to the vaccines being made with aborted fetal cells.

“Almost all vaccines are otherwise made by manufacturers who profit from the use of aborted fetal cells,” the lawsuit states. “These aborted fetal cells would be illegal to harvest in Mississippi today under the state’s abortion ban, and yet their continued use, and profit derived from an abortion, is condoned through the Compulsory Vaccination Law.”

The plaintiffs also argue in the lawsuit that the compulsory vaccination law is not “generally applicable” because it has allowed vaccine exemptions for secular, medical reasons, having granted 1,970 medical exemptions over the last six years.

‘Manifestly Irrational’

The lawsuit argues that the state’s failure to allow for religious exemptions has been “manifestly irrational.”

Though the state brags about having the highest childhood vaccination rate in the country, the lawsuit argues, “its interest is not so compelling as to forbid medical exemptions” and to require proof of immunizations for adults who make up 76 percent of the state’s population, for out-of-state visitors, or for any other activities.

“Considering these factors, Mississippi cannot demonstrate that the public interest requires Mississippi families to discard their religious convictions, and their constitutional rights, so their children can benefit from a formal education,” the lawsuit states.

Daniel Edney
Mississippi legislators listen as State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney speaks via teleconference, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2022. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

Michael Bently, Dr. Edney’s attorney, told The Associated Press that Dr. Edney doesn’t endorse the plaintiff’s arguments that the vaccination requirements are unconstitutional.

“In Dr. Edney’s view, the School Vaccination Law is constitutional as enacted by the Mississippi Legislature without a religious exemption,” Mr. Bentley wrote.

Under the new exemption process, the state can’t question the legitimacy of the applicant’s religious beliefs.

“The process is meant to respect the beliefs of parents who object to vaccinating their children on religious grounds, while also protecting the health of Mississippi’s 440,000 K-12 students and preserving the gains Mississippi has made in preventing cases of crippling and deadly diseases among school children,” Mr. Bentley wrote.

‘A Significant Breakthrough’

Walker Moller, an attorney with Siri & Glimstad, the law firm that represented the families, told The Epoch Times in April that the ruling “represents a significant breakthrough for Mississippi families who have been praying and fighting for a religious exemption option for many years.”

“Forty-four states have religious or philosophical exemption options to childhood vaccination requirements, but those exemptions are only available by way of legislative enactment,” Mr. Moller said. “In other words, exemptions in other states are legal privileges that can be taken away if elected officials deem necessary. The ruling in Mississippi is significant because it signals that Mississippians possess the inalienable constitutional right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, and that right exists independent of legislative action or inaction.”

The organization that funded the lawsuit—the Austin, Texas-based Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN)—said Mississippi allowing secular, medical exemptions shows that the state could have always accommodated unvaccinated students.

“It has simply chosen to not accord an exemption when it is someone’s immortal soul that a parent believes would be at risk,” ICAN said in a press release. “The plaintiffs and all parents in Mississippi whose children have been excluded from school due to their religious beliefs are, no doubt, incredibly heartened that a federal court agreed that the State cannot afford a secular exemption without affording a religious exemption because doing so violated the First Amendment.”

Mississippi Patriots for Vaccine Rights

An organization that has advocated for medical freedom and informed medical consent in the state celebrated the ruling but expressed disappointment that it took a lawsuit to secure a basic constitutional right that has been dismissed by state legislators.

“We have worked tirelessly through the years in attempts to convince Mississippi lawmakers to create a religious exemption, legislatively,” Mississippi Patriots for Vaccine Rights (MPVR) said in a press release.

However, state Republican leadership has “aggressively” blocked bills that would have allowed for religious exemptions, MPVR said.

“The facts and the U.S. Constitution demand a religious exemption to vaccines, yet each of them intentionally ensured that Mississippi maintained the most draconian vaccine laws in the nation,” MPVR said.

While other southern states have religious exemptions, MPVR said Mississippi has been a “radical outlier for over four decades” despite it being one of the most religious states in the country.

“Many parents have sincerely held religious beliefs which prevent them from vaccinating their children,” MPVR said. “Some have objections to using several of the vaccines which were developed using products of abortion. If those parents want to send their children to school, they would be forced to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

From The Epoch Times

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