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2nd federal judge strikes down religious exemptions to Arkansas vaccination law

By The Associated Press


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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A second federal judge has struck down a religious exemption to a state statute requiring vaccinations before children can attend public school.

The exemption, granted only to members of "recognized churches," violates the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment, Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled yesterday.

The decision left intact the state's vaccination requirement, meaning students still are subject to the requirement with no religious exemption to immunization.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Cynthia Boone, the mother of a student who refused to be vaccinated. The lawsuit said that although Ashley Boone is not a member of a recognized religious group with tenets against vaccinations, she personally believes that vaccinations "are against the will of her God."

Cabot High School officials had barred Ashley from classes during the 2001-2002 school year because she refused to be vaccinated against hepatitis B, a sexually transmitted disease.

Boone filed a federal lawsuit against the school district and the Arkansas Health Department, claiming the state selectively allows religious exemptions from vaccinations.

After the suit was filed, Wright temporarily ordered the district to allow Ashley to return to classes. The order was later extended to allow her to finish the school year.

As a result of yesterday's ruling, Ashley will have to be vaccinated in order to return for her senior year.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

The effect of Arkansas' religious exemption, Wright said in yesterday's ruling, was to discriminate against individuals with sincerely held individual religious beliefs.

"It is difficult to imagine how the state would have a compelling interest in limiting the religious exemption to some religious sects and individuals over others," the judge wrote.

Wright's ruling follows a similar federal decision last month. On July 25, U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled the religious-exemption section of Arkansas' law "runs afoul of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

Dawson's ruling also left intact the state's vaccination requirement.

Boone's suit was among several before Wright challenging the state's policy on vaccinations.

The judge dismissed one in its entirety yesterday, that of Susan Brock of Royal, who also claimed that immunizing her children from hepatitis B would interfere with her authority to teach her four school-age children abstinence in accordance with her religious beliefs.

Wright said her ruling in the Boone case rendered Brock's case moot.


Federal judge rejects religious exemptions to Arkansas immunization law
Family objects to having to define its religion; judge agrees that's unconstitutional but says all students must be vaccinated.  07.29.02