by Spencer Ponegalek
Discussing the Issue
Imagine for a moment you are the parent of a young child and your family has just moved from the southern United States to California for work. Both you and your partner have careers that cannot be done from home and the two of you are also very religious as well. Your child is set to start school in the fall, but as you start the enrollment process for them you notice a rather large list of “required immunizations prior to enrollment” and the word “required” sticks out to you. In your previous state, you remember seeing an option for “religious exemption” as well as an “other reasons” option and you assumed that the same would be true in California, but it’s not. In June 2015, California passed a law called SB277 that took away parents’ rights to exempt their children from mandated vaccines for religious and personal reasons, leaving only a narrow, hard to get medical exemption option. Without these vaccines, your child’s only education options will be a home-based private school, or an independent study program with no classroom-based instruction.
Now imagine you are a parent living in the house right next door to this family and that the SB277 law did not exist. Would you want your child to ride on the bus and sit in the same crowded classroom with that family’s religiously exempted, unvaccinated child?
A Deeper Look at SB277
In 2014 a measles outbreak spread from its starting point in the California Disneyland resort, all the way to parts of Mexico and Canada. Studies have shown that a potential catalyst for this outbreak could have been the lower numbers of vaccinated children in certain areas of California at that time. Shortly after this incident, a bill that would eventually turn into SB277 was written, and after Governor Jerry Brown signed the document, it was set as law. “Shortly after the passage of AB2109, SB277 went into effect in January 2016, and the proportion of kindergarten students receiving all required vaccines for school entry continued to increase from 92.8% in 2015–2016 to 95.1% in 2017–2018.” (Mohanty et al.,).
Legal Battles Involving SB277
Not everyone was happy with this turn of events. Five court cases (2 state and 3 federal) have been initiated by various groups in an attempt to remove the law. The people who oppose SB277 argue that the law is unconstitutional and impedes their right to public education, as well as their freedom of religion. One more thing the opponents have brought up, is a comparatively less-strong argument in the eyes of the court about how the law infringes on parental rights. One such case is Brown v. Smith:
In Brown v. Smith, six plaintiffs (out of an initial group of eight) challenged the law claiming that it was invalid because the state could not constitutionally mandate “unavoidably unsafe” products, and vaccines, they claimed, were very unsafe. It was unconstitutional because it violated their religious freedom as protected by the First Amendment and the California constitution, and it violated their children’s right to education because it violated equal protection. (Reiss)
This case brought forth some of the main issues on the minds of parents who are against SB277. The court, however, denied the validity of these claims. To the dismay of the plaintiffs, during court proceedings, research about the topic was presented in court which provided a comprehensive analysis of a related case that showed vaccines can have a largely positive impact on the number of illness related deaths of children. The plaintiffs lost this case.
SB277 has many supporters and opponents “for” and “against.” Currently, the law is active, so the “for” have the upper hand, legislatively speaking, for now. All they have to do is continue fielding these court cases and winning, and the law will remain in place. As mentioned previously, there has been an increase in the number of immunized children attending school since the law has been in effect and there are clear benefits to be gained from following the schedule for required immunizations, such as preventing and halting the direct spreading of diseases from person to person.
While other individuals and groups have come forward and attempted to enact court cases against SB277, all have failed. However, a group called “Informed Consent Action Network” (ICAN), which is based in Texas, is gaining ground in its judicial war path directed at SB277. At the moment, they are trying to fight for religious exemption rights across the US in states that don’t offer them to their citizens. Their legal team, led by Aaron Siri, has recently won a case for their cause in the state of Mississippi. Judge Sul Ozerden, who presided over the Mississippi case, understood “that because Mississippi affords a discretionary medical exemption process by statute, it must similarly afford a religious accommodation process and that not having a religious accommodation process, where it affords a secular one, is unconstitutional" (“Federal Court Restores Religious Exemption”). ICAN’s endeavors are not stopping in Mississippi. The thought process of the group, is that they plan on winning cases in the other 5 states that do not allow for religious exemptions just as they have in Mississippi. The other 5 states are West Virginia, New York, Maine, Connecticut, and of course California. Currently California is the state with the firmest stance on the issue, so ICAN plans to win over the other 4 states before bringing their case to California to litigate on the issue. This will hopefully create a stronger precedent for their cause within the bounds of the legal system.
Personal Thoughts and More Statistics on SB277
Whether or not SB277 is technically unconstitutional or not, those who oppose it are very upset. Looking past all the court cases and political rigamarole, the heart of the issue for them is that they want their beliefs, medical freedom and right to education to be respected by the government in the state they call home. At the time of writing this paper, there seem to be no attempts in any branch of government to create some alternative to the SB277 law in terms of legislative bills that would seek to strike a balance for those involved. Instead, the parties who favor the law and those who oppose the law are only looking to increase their own control over the contested issue.
In my opinion, I believe that the law SB277 should be removed. My reasoning behind this is that the percentages of vaccinated children before the implementation of SB277 and after its enaction seem negligible. The increase from 92.8% in 2015–2016 to 95.1% is a fractional 2.3%, and shows that an overwhelming majority of the population already were vaccinating their children without the need for a mandatory law. I could understand the need to keep and enforce the law if the percentages before and after were something more dramatic like say a 30% jump, but a 2.3% increase seems insignificant. In 2015 92.8% of children in California were vaccinated. This same year there was an abnormally high amount of measles cases in California compared to previous years, that ended up numbering to 60 confirmed accounts of the disease in children. Comparing these numbers to the year 2019, which is sometime after SB277 had been in effect, 96.5% of children in California were vaccinated at that time, and throughout that year there were 16 confirmed cases of measles in children. As there are roughly 8.77 million children in California, neither of these numbers seem very high to me. In addition, medical researchers “estimate that 75-80% of the population would need to be vaccinated before we can have herd immunity” (Yu). Herd immunity is the resistance of a population to a certain disease, and we were well above that specified number in California before SB277 was implemented. The primary goal of a vaccine is to prevent a disease from being contracted by a person, and its secondary goal is to prevent a disease from spreading. I am aware that the greater the number of vaccinated people there are, the more effective it is in theory. However, I don’t think that such a small percentage increase makes much of a difference to the safety of the population in California.
A Brief Review
California’s SB277 policy on vaccinations became a battleground for the rights to religious freedom concerning vaccination. The theorized catalyst for the policy’s eventual enaction was a measles outbreak in Disneyland that caused unrest in concerned individuals who lobbied for the proposed SB277 law to be enforced. After the law went into effect, an increase in the number of vaccinated children was recorded. Sometime after this, people who opposed SB277 took their issues with the law to the court system and attempted to regain the right to a religious exemption for their children in the California school system. In court, they claimed that SB277 was unconstitutional. In California, all court cases regarding SB277 have been won by the defendants and the law has remained in effect. The group “Informed Consent Action Network” (ICAN), has won a court case restoring religious exemption rights in Mississippi, and they plan to eventually come to California to try and remove the SB277 law that is currently active.
The precedents involved in the SB277 law call into question, how much authority should the government have over the religious freedoms of Californians? Also, based on the grounds of state-wide safety, should the government be allowed to enforce a mandatory medical procedure on its citizens in order for them to participate in their constitutional right to education? SB277 causes distress for a number of religious individuals who choose to remain unvaccinated. However, just because number of people is small doesn’t mean that the issues that they have faced because of this law should be disregarded as insignificant.
What Do You Think?
The vast majority of parents are getting their children vaccinated, and they are put at ease knowing that because of SB277, there are now fewer unvaccinated children in public schools alongside their own. Which side are you on? Perhaps you believe that an even stricter law must be implemented where absolutely no unvaccinated children should be allowed in the public school system regardless of the parents reasoning, or a child’s medical condition. Maybe that would be the safest option. However, I would advise you to consider what rights you are allowing the government to control before you take a stance.
California Department of Public Health, Immunization Branch. California Department of Public Health, 2015, https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID...2015-04-17.pdf Accessed 10 Oct. 2023.
“Federal Court Restores Religious Exemption to Vaccines Mandated for Attending School in Mississippi in Case Brought by Siri & Glimstad LLP and Attorney Chris Wiest.” Cision PR Newswire, 2023, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-rele...301914148.html
Gragnani, Candace. Et al, “Understanding California’s Child Care and School Immunization Requirements and Medical Exemptions.” County of Los Angelis Public Health, http://rx.ph.lacounty.gov/RxVaccine0722 Accessed 10 October 2023.
Mohanty, Salini. et al. “California’s Senate Bill 277: Local Health Jurisdictions’ Experiences With the Elimination of Nonmedical Vaccine Exemptions.” American Public Health Association, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/art...7%E2%80%932018. Accessed 10 October2023.
Reiss, Dorit “A Few Hail Mary Passes: Immunization Mandate Law, SB 277, Brought To Court” Health Affairs, https://www.healthaffairs.org/conten...-brought-court Accessed 10 October 2023
---. California Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to Vaccine Law. Bill of Health, https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard....o-vaccine-law/
Simpson, Michael “California SB277 lawsuit appeal – bad arguments against vaccines.” Skeptical Raptor, https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skep...oidably_unsafe Accessed 10 October 2023.
Sanyaolu, Adekunle. et al, “Measles Outbreak in Unvaccinated and Partially Vaccinated Children and Adults in the United States and Canada (2018-2019): A Narrative Review of Cases.” SAGE Publications, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6906342/ Accessed 10 October 2023.
Yu, Christine. “What Is Herd Immunity?” WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/covid/what-is-herd-immunity Accessed 10 October 2023.