After nearly four years fighting about whether and when employers may exclude contraceptive coverage from employee health plans (and even block others from providing that coverage), it’s perhaps refreshing to see less controversial cases. And few healthcare-exemption cases are less controversial than those brought by parents who object to vaccinating their children. Although the challenged laws are objectively more intrusive than the contraceptive regulations—vaccination laws require parents to get the offending treatment injected into their children—courts thus far have correctly dismissed these challenges with little fanfare.
This dynamic surfaced again in a recent federal trial-court decision in California, in which the court dismissed a federal and state constitutional challenge to California legislation repealing the “personal belief exemption” to requirements that those entering schools and child-care facilities get vaccinated against diseases—including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and other dreadful ailments. The court acknowledged that eliminating the personal-belief exemption “raises principled and spirited religious and conscientious objections by genuinely caring parents and concerned citizens,” but stated that “the wisdom of the Legislature’s decision is not for this Court to decide.” Because the legislature decided to scrap the personal-belief exemption, California now exempts only those children (1) with actual medical reasons for avoiding the vaccination, (2) who are home schooled, or (3) who qualify for an Individualized Education Program under federal disabilty law. That’s a much more limited and manageable group of exemptees.
Although quite a relief for those seeking to minimize gratuitous suffering from preventable diseases, the court’s decision implicates several knotty legal issues and is worth exploring further.