On June 30, 2015, California’s governor signed into law Senate Bill 277 (SB 277), which removed the personal belief exemption to the state’s school immunization requirements. Since 1961, California has allowed a philosophical exemption to vaccination. This exemption allows parents to object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs. Prior to the enactment of SB 277, the law in California provided, in pertinent part, that
immunization of a person shall not be required for admission to school… if the parent or guardian… files with the governing authority a letter or affidavit that documents which immunizations required by [law] have been given, or which immunizations have not been given on the basis that they are contrary to his or her beliefs.
Cal. Health & Safety Code, § 120365.
Currently, 16 states provide for a personal belief exemption. SB 277 went into effect on July 1, 2016, and under this law, children in California are only able to attend private or public school or daycare facilities if they receive the immunizations required by law or obtain a medical exemption from a licensed physician. Under this measure, parents can no longer cite their personal beliefs as a reason not to vaccinate their children.
On the same day the law took effect, 17 families and 2 foundations filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against the State of California claiming that SB 277 violates their rights to free exercise, equal protection, due process and education (Whitlow v. Department of Education, State of California, et al.). In addition, the plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of SB 277 pending resolution of the lawsuit. Under Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the party seeking injunctive relief must show “that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.” Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008).
On August 26, 2016, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing that they are entitled to the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction. In her ruling, United States District Judge Dana M. Sabraw held that the Plaintiffs had not met the first prong of Rule 65, i.e. had not shown that they were likely to succeed on their claims that SB 277 violates their right to free exercise, equal protection, due process, and education. Further, the court concluded that “[h]istory, in itself, does not compel the result in the case, but the case law makes clear that States may impose mandatory vaccination requirements without providing for religious or conscientious objections.” Accordingly, the judge denied the motion.
This lawsuit will continue through the court system and will likely take more than a year to conclude. During the pendency of this suit, the plaintiffs will not be permitted to attend school except for home-schooling unless they comply with the immunization requirements. Going forward, the ultimate outcome of this case could impact thousands of school aged children statewide in California and is one to keep an eye on.
If you think you or someone you know has been injured by a vaccine, compensation for the injury may be available. To find out if you qualify to file a case under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program click here and let the vaccine litigation experts at RawlsMcNelis provide the answers.