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Judge upholds law eliminating vaccination religious exemption

Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. arrives for a

Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. arrives for a hearing challenging the constitutionality of the State Legislature's repeal of the religious exemption to vaccination at Albany County Courthouse on Aug. 14. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — A judge has upheld a new state law that eliminated a religious exemption from mandatory vaccines for children in schools or day care programs.

State Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman, in a decision issued late Friday, said a “long line of cases” dating back to 1905 uphold the state’s power to require vaccinations and that such laws don’t violate constitutional rights to religious freedom.

The judge said public health concerns, amid a measles outbreak, outweighed the opponents’ Equal Protection and First Amendment claims.

Citing a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hartman wrote: “The right to practice religion does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

Medical exemptions are still available for children whose health might be threatened by vaccines.

Hartman also refused to grant opponents an injunction blocking the law before the academic year starts because she said they aren’t “likely to prevail” ultimately on their constitutional claims.

Michael Sussman, attorney for the vaccination-law opponents, said he will appeal the decision.

“As you know, we believe the repeal violates several constitutional rights,” Sussman wrote on Facebook, adding he would file “legal papers” with the state court system’s mid-level Appellate Division this week in Albany.

State Attorney General Letitia James, whose office is defending the new law, applauded the ruling.

“Vaccines ensure the health and safety of our children, our families, and our communities,” James said in a statement. “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 judge’s decision.”

The lawsuit revolves around a law enacted by the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in June that eliminated the religious exemption to New York’s vaccine requirements for school-age children.

They took action following the biggest outbreak of measles in 25 years, with nearly 1,000 cases reported in the state, mostly in New York City and Rockland County.

The law doesn’t order that children be vaccinated. But it does bar unvaccinated children from public schools and day care programs. At a court hearing earlier this month, Sussman said the state’s action leaves families with “nowhere to go” with the school year beginning soon.

He also had argued lawmakers were motivated by “hostility to religion.”

Hartman rejected those arguments, as well as claims the law violated constitutional protections.

Legislators’ statements in enacting the law show they were concerned with the “overriding goal of protecting the public health,” the judge wrote, adding: “In sum, plaintiffs have not convinced the court in their argument … the legislation was driven by religious animus.”

“The Court is hard-pressed to conclude that plaintiffs have shown that the balance of equities tips decidedly in their favor,” Hartman wrote. “Just as the court cannot overstate the potential harm to plaintiffs if the injunction is denied, the court cannot overstate the potential harm to unvaccinated individuals if the injunction is granted.”

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