State, anti-vaxxers square off in court over vaccine law
ALBANY — An attorney for the state told a judge Wednesday New York’s decision to abolish a religious exemption to vaccine requirements is supported by 100 years’ worth of state and federal court decisions.
“It’s been the law for a century: Mandatory vaccines do not violate constitutional rights,” said Assistant Attorney General Helena Lynch during oral arguments in state Supreme Court over a lawsuit seeking to restore the religious exemptions. “The right to free expression of religion does not encompass the right to endanger the lives, health and safety of others.”
Michael Sussman, an attorney for anti-vaxxers and others seeking to reinstate the exemption, countered that lawmakers were motivated by “hostility to religion.”
At issue is a law enacted by the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in June that eliminated a 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.
Medical exemptions are still available for children whose health might be threatened by vaccines.
The law doesn’t order that children be vaccinated. But it does bar unvaccinated children from public schools and other places. Sussman said the state’s action leaves some children with “nowhere to go” with the school year beginning soon.
“We have 26,000 children who, in two weeks, one week, are going to have nowhere to go to school,” Sussman said. He contended the basis for the lawmakers’ action “all goes to the active hostility to religion.”
Lynch countered: “The actual legislative record is so clear that the motivation was public health.”
Justice Denise Hartman declined to rule immediately on Sussman’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the law from being enforced. Last month, a different judge blocked the anti-vaxxers' request for a similar injunction.
The proceeding was attended by hundreds of parents and children, dressed in white, who packed the courtroom and stood outside on the courthouse steps in support of the religious exemption. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent voice in the anti-vaxx movement, addressed the crowd on the courthouse steps after the hearing, expressing optimism they will prevail.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1905 have upheld laws requiring children be vaccinated before they can attend school, saying compulsory vaccinations don’t violate constitutional rights.
New York officials have said they modeled the new state law after a California statute that has been upheld in courts.