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State court upholds end of religious exemptions to vaccines

A New York appeals court upheld the state's end to religious exemptions to vaccines in a ruling this week.
Paul Vernon
A New York appeals court upheld the state's end to religious exemptions to vaccines in a ruling this week.

A state appeals court in Seneca County has upheld New York’s elimination of religious exemptions to vaccine requirements.

The ruling from State Supreme Court Justice Daniel Doyle rejected claims that eliminating the exemptions was an unconstitutional infringement on religious rights.

This is the first school year in which a medical exemption form signed by a doctor is the only way around vaccination requirements for students enrolled in public, private or parochial schools in New York.

The case in Seneca County focused on an Amish family represented by Long Island attorney Jason Mermigis. In his initial complaint, Mermigis said the family’s three children are all unvaccinated, and all attend Cranberry Marsh school in Romulus, a town about midway between Rochester and Syracuse.

All 24 of the students at the private school are unvaccinated, the complaint said. Forcing the children to be vaccinated would be a “betrayal of faith in God” for their father, Jonas Stoltzfus, Mermigis wrote.

“I think that’s a serious, you know, infringement of religious freedoms and religious rights,” Mermigis said.

Mermigis said the ruling left him “shocked.” 

“I think this decision is callous. I think it’s ignorant,” he said.

The state health department said it cannot comment on pending litigation. Under the rules barring religious exemptions to vaccines, schools can be fined up to $2,000 per day for each student who is out of compliance.

A health department spokesperson said she did not have information immediately available about whether the state had taken any punitive action against Cranberry Marsh school.

Mermigis said the family lives in a secluded community, and they would not put anyone else at risk by being unvaccinated.

But Seneca County public health director Vickie Swinehart said Amish communities often have contact with other populations.

“They’re not totally isolated,” she said. “They still go out to stores and are in the general population. They’re not just in their own community and stay there. They interact – you know, the Amish work in the community. Some of them – they’re not all just farmers who work on their farm and don’t go anywhere.”

Swinehart said increasing the vaccination rate is important to protect Amish families and others. She says diseases like measles and whooping cough are extremely contagious.

Swinehart and other public health officials in largely rural Finger Lakes counties said they have been scheduling additional outreach sessions to talk to Amish and Mennonite families about the new rules and the benefits of vaccines.

“These are communities with traditionally some of the lowest rates of immunization,” said Yates County deputy public health director Sara Christensen.

Even when families are on board with the new rules, though, actually getting their children up-to-date on vaccines is a struggle, Christensen said.

“We started our efforts this summer, and we are still working to reach some families,” she said.

Mermigis said the Stoltzfus family probably doesn’t know about the ruling yet. He said they call him from a community phone once a week, and when they talk next, he’ll tell them about the judge’s decision and see if they want to take further legal action.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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