California Court Upholds Elimination Of Personal Belief Exemptions For Student Vaccine Requirements

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education
DATE: Apr 25, 2024

Four mothers with school-aged children who reside in California brought suit against Rob Bonta, the California Attorney General, alleging that their religious beliefs forbid them from vaccinating their children.  The mothers argued that their children are unable to enjoy the benefits of public and private education because California’s compulsory vaccination law requires all students to receive vaccines.

By way of background, prior to January 1, 2016, students could apply for medical and personal belief exemptions to the immunization requirement.  Since January 1, 2016, personal belief exemptions have been prohibited and school authorities cannot unconditionally admit any child to preschool, kindergarten through sixth grade, or seventh grade, unless the child has been immunized or qualifies for other exemptions.  Personal belief exemptions on file at a private or public school are honored through each of the designated grade spans (i.e., birth to preschool; kindergarten and grades one to six; and grades seven to twelve), until the unvaccinated child enrolls in the next grade span.

There are exceptions.  First, California’s immunization requirements are not required for any child in a home-based private school or a child enrolled in an independent study program.  Second, children who qualify for an individualized education program (IEP) may not be prohibited from accessing special education or related services based on vaccination status.  Third, children may be medically exempt from immunization requirements if a licensed physician states in writing that the child cannot be immunized due to physical or medical circumstances.

On October 31, 2023, the four mothers filed a complaint for injunctive relief, challenging the immunization law under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

To merit protection under the Free Exercise Clause, a religious claim must be sincerely held, rooted in religious belief, and not purely secular.  The right to exercise one’s religion, however, does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law requires conduct with which the person’s religion conflicts.

The Court noted that the Supreme Court has long endorsed state and local government authority to impose mandatory student vaccinations in order to protect the health and safety of other students and the public at large.

The Court concluded that while the mothers’ objections were rooted in sincerely held religious beliefs, the vaccination law was a neutral law.  The Court found no hostility to religion—the law makes no reference to religion or religious practice, nor does it target or single out religion for harsher treatment.  It requires all children in public and private schools to receive common childhood vaccinations.

The Court also looked at the legislative history and found no evidence of anti-religious motivations in enacting the law.  According to the legislative history, the law was introduced in response to the 2015 measles outbreak in California and reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that there were more measles outbreaks in January 2015 than in any one month in the twenty years prior.  The legislative history also identified concerns over the significant rise in personal belief exemptions—a 337% increase between 2000 and 2012—which places communities at risk of preventable diseases.

Finally, the Court concluded that the law was generally applicable because it did not selectively impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief.  Medical exemptions are framed in objective terms—a child is exempt if the parent files with the governing authority a written statement by a licensed physician.  The state’s interest in enacting this law is to protect the health and safety of students and the public at large from the spread of infectious diseases.  The Court found that the risks posed by the law’s exemptions were not comparable to the personal belief exemption.

In light of these findings, the Court found that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the health and safety of students and the public at large and that the repeal of the personal belief exemption is rationally related to furthering that interest.  The Court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Note: This case upholds the current law in California, which is that schools cannot unconditionally admit any student unless the student has been fully immunized.  Schools are required to file a written report on the immunization status of new students to the school with the State Department of Public Health and the local health department on at least an annual basis at times and on forms prescribed by the State Department of Public Health. 

Royce v. Bonta (S.D.Cal. Mar. 25, 2024) 2024 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 52973.

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