Earlier this month, the California legislature passed SB 276, a senate bill that amends several provisions of the California Health and Safety Code regarding the mandatory vaccination of children attending schools. The bill is designed to combat instances of illegitimate medical claims to obtain exemptions to state vaccination requirements by instituting stricter protocols and oversight for medical exemption applications.
Mandatory vaccinations and exemptions for medical or personal beliefs have been a contentious and divisive topic throughout the country. At the center of the issue is a conflict between public safety and a parent’s right to raise their children according to their own personal beliefs. The purpose of this article is to inform you about the important legal issues implicated by the vaccine debate, not to criticize or promote one position over the other.
Courts throughout the country have held that a parent has a fundamental, constitutional right to raise their children in accordance with their own values and beliefs. However a parent’s rights and responsibilities for raising their children are not absolute, as they may not endanger the child’s health and safety in the name of religious or spiritual values.
To illustrate this point, consider this hypothetical example: if a parent’s religion demanded the ritualistic sacrifice of a child, a court may override that religion to protect the child’s life. The central issue regarding the vaccine debate concerns the extent to which a parent’s right to raise their children can be superseded by a law designed to promote public safety and welfare.
In general, every state has a vaccination requirement for school-going children. However, exemptions to vaccination requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. All states recognize a vaccination exemption for situations for children with special medical conditions that put them at risk for developing harmful reactions to required vaccines. Some states recognize a religious belief exemption if vaccination requirements interfere with a regular practice of an established religion.
In California, a student is only exempted from the vaccination requirement for medical purposes. According to the legislature, “effective immunizations not only protect immunized individuals from disease, but have the ability to provide indirect protection for which immunizations are not effective or safe. The indirect protection is called herd or community immunity.”
However, some parents have allegedly worked around this requirement by having their doctors sign-off on illegitimate medical claims so they can obtain a medical exemption. The government could not question the validity of a physician’s statement in support of a medical exemption. SB 276 was introduced to allow the California Department of Public Health to crack down on fraudulent medical exemptions by requiring physicians to verify the accuracy of their statements under penalty of perjury.
California law regarding child neglect and endangerment creates civil and criminal liability for parents who unjustifiably put their children at risk of serious harm. Criminal prosecutions for child endangerment are reserved for severe cases where parents harmed or seriously risked the health and safety of their child.
Furthermore, a parent’s rights may be terminated to prevent serious harm to a child. Custody disputes between a child’s separated or divorcing parents also hinge on considering what custody arrangement serves the best interests of the child. Among other factors, courts will consider any history of child abuse and endangerment, and whether the parent can provide necessary medical treatment.
The refusal to vaccinate one’s child does not necessarily fit neatly with child neglect laws. From the parent’s perspective, refusing to vaccinate their children demonstrates how much they care about avoiding severe risks to their child’s health and safety.
Conversely, granting exemptions for immunizations for reasons that aren’t supported by accepted scientific methods disrupts herd or community immunity and exposes the public to preventable outbreaks, such as the recent measles epidemics that struck California in recent years. According to small study, some states have ruled that refusal to vaccinate constitutes child neglect.
If doctors, in their sincere medical judgment, believe a child’s health would be put at risk by vaccinations, then a medical exemption will be granted. However, there is a small (but not insignificant) number of physicians who disfavor currently accepted immunization practices. As a result, a judge and jury may face the task of weighing in on a purely scientific debate for which they have little background knowledge. Ultimately, the outcome may hinge on a person’s faith in the consensus of the scientific community.
If you are facing a child custody dispute or claims of child endangerment or neglect, you should seek legal representation. At Moshtael Family Law, our legal team has years of experience dealing with child custody and domestic violence prevention cases.
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