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Mississippi Must Grant Religious Exemptions For Childhood Vaccines, Federal Judge Rules

U.S. District Judge Halil S. Ozerden with his hand raised at a US Senate hearing
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Judge Sul Ozerden ruled on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, that Mississippi must allow religious exemptions under the State’s compulsory childhood vaccine laws for school attendance.

Anti-vaccine activists are celebrating in Mississippi after a federal judge struck down the State’s long-standing childhood vaccine requirements for public or private school attendance, saying the State must allow religious exemptions like most others already do. Mississippi is one of just six states that only permits childhood vaccines for medical reasons, with no religious exemptions.

The Texas-based Informed Consent Action Network funded the lawsuit, filed in September 2022, arguing that the lack of religious exemptions for vaccines violates the First Amendment’s guarantees of the free exercise of religion. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Judge Sul Ozerden agreed with ICAN’s argument in his Bosarge v. Edney opinion.

The George W. Bush-appointed judge’s order says that starting on July 15, the Mississippi State Department of Health “will be enjoined from enforcing (Mississippi’s compulsory vaccination law) unless they provide an option for individuals to request a religious exemption from the vaccine requirement.” The State could still appeal the ruling, however.

Mississippi’s compulsory childhood immunization requirements include a vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; for polio; for hepatitis B; for measles, mumps and rubella; and for chickenpox. The State does not mandate COVID-19 vaccines. Mississippi has the highest childhood vaccination rate in the nation, a fact that MSDH has attributed to strict vaccine laws. While other states with more permissive vaccine laws have reported measles outbreaks in recent years, Mississippi has not reported a case originating in the state in decades.

MSDH did not grant an interview for this story or address whether the agency plans to appeal the ruling. Communications Director Liz Sharlot sent a comment this morning saying “the Mississippi State Department of Health continues to support strong immunization laws that protect our children.”

“Beyond that, it is our long-standing policy that the Agency does not comment on pending litigation,” she said.

State Supremes Struck Down Exemptions in 1979

The State once allowed religious exemptions for childhood vaccines, but the Mississippi Supreme Court struck that law down in its 1979 Brown v. Stone ruling.

“Is it mandated by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that innocent children, too young to decide for themselves, are to be denied the protection against crippling and death that immunization provides because of a religious belief adhered to by a parent or parents?” the justices wrote at the time.

The answer, they decided, was no.

Close-up of syringe with bottles on table,Pakistan
Mississippi has the highest childhood vaccine rate in the U.S., a fact the Mississippi State Department of Health has attributed to the State’s strict compulsory vaccination laws, which do not allow religious exemptions. Pexels Cover/500px via Getty Images

“The protection of the great body of school children attending the public schools in Mississippi against the horrors of crippling and death resulting from poliomyelitis or smallpox or from one of the other diseases against which means of immunization are known and have long been practiced successfully, demand that children who have not been immunized should be excluded from the school community until immunization has been accomplished,” the court’s Brown v. Stone opinion said.

“… The exception, which would provide for the exemption of children of parents whose religious beliefs conflict with the immunization requirements, would discriminate against the great majority of children whose parents have no such religious convictions.”

If Judge Ozerden’s ruling stands, it would overrule the 1979 state decision.

Pediatricians Worry About ‘Resurgence’ in Diseases

Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday that “pediatricians throughout the state are alarmed and concerned by the recent ruling.”

“We have the highest kindergarten vaccination rate in the nation—almost 99% of kindergarteners are fully vaccinated when they enter school—and because of our high kindergarten vaccination rate, we have very low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases,” she said, noting that the last measles case in the state was in 1992.

Dr. Anita Henderson speaks at a podium while several other doctors listen from behind
“We just don’t see those diseases now, so people don’t think about measles and polio, but those diseases are prevalent in other parts of the world and other parts of the country. We’re concerned we’re going to see a resurgence here in Mississippi now,” said Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and the past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Vaccines “have saved millions of lives worldwide since their inception,” the pediatrician noted.

“We just don’t see those diseases now, so people don’t think about measles and polio, but those diseases are prevalent in other parts of the world and other parts of the country. We’re concerned we’re going to see a resurgence here in Mississippi now,” she said.

Henderson said she is particularly concerned about how the ruling will affect immunocompromised children, such as organ transplant patients who are on immunosuppressants. Schools, she said, “should be able to provide an education for all children.”

“It is going to be burdensome to our children who have chronic medical conditions who cannot be vaccinated, so we have concerns about those children,” she said. “Many of them actually stayed home during COVID and home schooled. … So those children are now going to be exposed to a variety of diseases.”

‘Parents As The Final Authority Over Their Children’

In a statement after the decision, ICAN said it supported the lawsuit “to defend these parents’ constitutional rights.”

“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,” ICAN said. “It has simply chosen to not accord an exemption when it is someone’s immortal soul that a parent believes would be at risk.”

Mississippi Patriots For Vaccine Rights and Medical Freedom, an organization that has long opposed vaccine mandates, including for COVID-19 vaccines, said in a press release Wednesday after the ruling that they “are committed to the family as the first institution, ordained by God, with parents as the final authority over their own children.”

Since its establishment in 2012, MPVR has pushed for the State to pass legislation allowing religious exemptions for vaccines, but those efforts have failed each year, including during the most recent legislative session that ended earlier this month. In a statement Wednesday, the anti-vaccine group called Mississippi a “radical outlier” when it comes to vaccine exemptions and accused Republican state leaders of maintaining “the most draconian vaccine laws in the nation.”

MPVR claimed the “refusal to recognize religious exemptions has needlessly harmed these children” whose parents have anti-vaccine religious views “by forcing their parents to homeschool or move out of the State, often directly across the border to attend school in a neighboring state while otherwise continuing to live their lives in Mississippi.”

The organization plans to host an online Zoom meeting at 8 p.m. with Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, an Jones County Republican who is running against incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann for his position in this year’s GOP primaries.

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