Religious Exemption: The Law – a Summary

Religious Exemptions – the Law:


The Federal Constitution does not require a Religious Exemption:

  • School immunization requirements are constitutional (Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174, 177 (1922): (no exemption in that case).
  • Parental rights & religious freedom do not overcome child’s welfare. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944): Case focused on child labor law; had a comment addressing compulsory vaccination.
  • Neutral, generally applicable laws can be applied even to those with religious opposition. Emp’t Div., Dep’t of Human Res. of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 890 (1990).
  • Most recently, principles applied in: Phillips v. City of New York, (2015, 2nd circuit) (cert denied).

A State Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be overcome by subsequent legislation, and hence does not prevent abolishing the religious exemption either. In addition, at least one case suggested preventing infectious disease is a compelling state interest: Workman v. Mingo Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 419 F. App’x 348, 353–54 (4th Cir. 2011) (per curiam).


Limits on Scope and Application of Religious Exemptions:

  • Most courts ruled: you cannot limit the exemption to organized religion. Dalli v. Bd. of Educ., 267 N.E.2d 219, 222–23 (Mass. 1971); Brown, 378 So. 2d at 223, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 887 (1980). One exception – Kentucky – overturned later by legislature.
  • If the legislature did not require a show of sincerity for a religious exemption, several courts ruled that officials cannot demand a show of sincerity. In re LePage, 18 P.3d 1177, 1180 (Wyo. 2001); Dep’t of Health v. Curry, 722 So. 2d 874, 878–79 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1998).
  • Belonging to a religion that supports vaccines does not mean someone can be denied an exemption: focus on personal belief, not orthodoxy. Berg v. Glen Cove City Sch. Dist., 853 F. Supp. 651 (E.D.N.Y. 1994); Matter of Shmuel G. v. Rivka G., 800 N.Y.S.2d 357 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 2005).


Is a Religious Exemption a Good Idea?

For Religious Exemption: Against Religious Exemption:
Respect for religious values and religious freedoms. Unfair to put child at risk because of parents’ religious belief – child did not choose religion.
As long as numbers small enough, does not undermine herd immunity, little or no risk. Jurisprudence makes it impossible to limit numbers of those using exemption – very hard to police – so does undermine herd immunity & creates risk.
Jurisprudence that makes it hard to police encourages people to lie & unfairly advantages good liars.
No mainstream religion opposes vaccination. Even Christian Science does not directly prohibit it – especially if legally required. See: Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany 219–20 (1917); Christian Science Sentinel, view?q=quarrel+vaccination& (last visited Aug. 1, 2014).