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Missouri judge dismisses lawsuit over religious exemptions for vaccinations

A federal judge in Missouri has ruled against a student at a Christian school who challenged the state’s religious exemption form for vaccinations.

Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs dismissed the lawsuit brought by the student, identified as W.B., and his parents, Zach and Audrey Baker, according to KBIA radio in Columbia. They objected to language encouraging parents to immunize their children and warning of the adverse public health risks of failing to vaccinate.

The Bakers argued that requiring them to sign and submit the form constitutes compelled speech, in violation of their religious beliefs. In addition to the Crossroads Academy, they also sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the state agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing the vaccination system.

Sachs ruled that an unbroken line of Supreme Court cases has upheld a state’s right to require and advocate for vaccination of school children.

“Such advocacy (right or wrong) deals with public health issues,” Sachs wrote in his five-page order dismissing the Bakers’ lawsuit. “It is entirely secular in nature and motive, not ‘hostile to religion.’ For instance, it would not be hostile to a religious objection to eating pork for an agency to certify that pork is safe to eat. The certification, like the DHSS language here, is religiously neutral.”

Missouri law requires students to be immunized, subject to exemptions based on “religious beliefs or medical contraindications.” All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring specified vaccines, and all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons. Forty-five states and Washington, D.C., grant religious exemptions, and 15 states also allow philosophical objections.

The Bakers also challenged Missouri’s religious exemption form on state law grounds. Sachs opted not to take up those challenges and instead said the Bakers could pursue them in state court.

Kansas requires a student to be an adherent of a religious denomination in order to invoke the exemption. Baker said that’s unconstitutional “because it favors a religion.”