Federal judge: Mississippi must allow religious exemptions for vaccine deniers
The decision will make public schools less safe for everyone in the state. The plaintiffs don't care.
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In a wildly irresponsible move, a federal judge has ordered the state of Mississippi to allow religious people to avoid childhood vaccinations as a prerequisite to enter public schools. Whether or not the conservative Christian plaintiffs will ever admit it, this lawsuit will make public schools less safe by making it easier for measles and other diseases to make a return.
U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden, a right-wing judge and member of the Federalist Society, said that state law permits vaccine exemptions for medical reasons, which are secular, therefore the state must permit religious exemptions too.
Ozerden set a July 15 deadline for the Mississippi State Department of Health to allow religious exemptions. The state already allows people to apply for medical exemptions for a series of five vaccinations that are required for children to enroll in public or private school. The immunizations are against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis; measles, mumps and rubella; and chickenpox.
The ruling never says why the families in question don’t want to be vaccinated, but they’ve explained their reasons publicly:
One of the families who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit believe “God has created humans with functioning immune systems that were well designed to counteract threats,” the lawsuit said, adding that they only seek out medication “when an intervention is clearly necessary.”
Our immune systems, much like the rest of our bodies, are far from perfect. The same people who have no problem wearing glasses, getting braces, or taking Tylenol for a headache, seem to think their bodies can naturally fight back against a host of infectious diseases. They refuse to acknowledge that those diseases were largely eradicated because of vaccines and are now returning precisely because of ignorant, selfish people like them.
Vaccines only work if the vast majority of people get the shots. In the case of measles, if 95% of the population is protected, the disease won’t be able to spread due to herd immunity. That’s why medical exemptions are permitted; it’s okay if a handful of kids are physically unable to take the shots assuming everyone else can and will get them.
Allowing people to simply refuse to have their kids vaccinated because they don’t feel like it puts entire communities at risk. Mississippi does not currently allow religious, philosophical, or conscientious reasons for avoiding the shots if you’re enrolling your kids in public schools. That’s the right call.
But these religious individuals would rather jeopardize public safety in the name of religion, and unfortunately, that argument has been effective in front of conservative judges. The group bringing this lawsuit is well aware of that:
The lawsuit, funded by the Texas-based Informed Consent Action Network, argued that Mississippi’s lack of a religious exemption for childhood vaccinations violates the U.S. Constitution.
“The State of Mississippi affords a secular exemption to those with medical reasons that prohibit vaccination, reflecting that it can accommodate students that are unvaccinated,” the network said in a statement. “It has simply chosen to not accord an exemption when it is someone’s immortal soul that a parent believes would be at risk.”
Much like anti-abortion zealots who care more about protecting a fetus than preserving the health of a grown woman, these people care more about their clients’ “immortal soul” than children’s lives.
The lack of understanding there is wild, too. Medical exemptions are not “secular” in any meaningful way. If the state allowed conscientious objections to vaccines, then the religious side might have a point. But claiming the state “can accommodate students that are unvaccinated” without noting that the math and science don’t work if additional accommodations are permitted shows you the sort of people we’re dealing with.
Mississippi officials have not said if they’ll appeal this ruling, but for the sake of everyone, let’s hope they do—and that they succeed. It’s not like the state is known for having a strong health care system. But on the subject of vaccines, it’s currently one of only six states that does not allow religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. It’s one of the only aspects of health care that the state gets right.
John Gaudet, past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Mississippi’s high vaccination rate should be preserved and protected.
“We’re at the bottom of the heap in many health metrics, but at the top of the heap in protecting our children from vaccine-preventable illnesses,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, and of them is because when we send our kids to kindergarten, we require them to be vaccinated, to not only protect them but to protect the other children in the classroom.
“I think that comes from a sense of community, and it’s endured for decades — that we take care of ourselves and we take care of those around us.”
Unfortunately, because vaccine deniers and their conservative religious allies don’t give a damn about anyone’s health, and choose to believe conspiracy theories about vaccines instead of the science behind how they work, more people in Mississippi could be at risk all because of these religious extremists and their right-wing enablers.
Barring an appeal, the Mississippi State Department of Health has until July 15 to change the law to allow religious exemptions for schools.
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