Parent Challenges Vaccine Mandate in W. Va

July 26, 2011

WASHINGTON DC – Citing concerns about religious freedom and the need for parents to be able to direct the medical and educational well-being of their children, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of Workman v. Mingo County Board of Education.

The petition for certiorari urges the Court to reverse a lower court decision in which a mother was denied the right to claim a religious exemption for her child under a West Virginia law requiring children to be vaccinated as a condition of attending public school, despite the fact that medical exemptions are permitted.

“This is an important fundamental constitutional issue,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “If the state is going to allow some exemptions from the vaccination requirement—which it should do—then a proper regard for religious freedom compels it to recognize religious exemptions as well.”

Jennifer Workman, the mother of two school-aged children, sought a religious accommodation from the Mingo County Board of Education because her religious beliefs precluded her from allowing her daughter to be vaccinated. Workman’s request was denied. Exemptions apply to children whose doctors certify that there is sufficient reason they not be vaccinated, but not to children whose families object to vaccinations on religious or philosophical grounds.

With the assistance of attorney Patricia Finn of Piermont, New York, Workman filed suit in April 2009 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, claiming the denial of religious accommodation violates her rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court dismissed the case in November 2009. Workman subsequently appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling in March 2011. Workman then sought the added assistance of The Rutherford Institute.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Institute attorneys note that Circuit Courts of Appeals have split over issues that are central to the case, including what level of scrutiny should be applied to the denial of religious accommodation when secular accommodations are allowed. Moreover, Institute attorneys also point out that the Supreme Court itself has held that where laws that incidentally burden Free Exercise rights allow for secular exemptions, government officials must justify the denial of exemptions requested for religious reasons by demonstrating a compelling interest.

Affiliate attorneys Patricia Finn of Piermont, New York and Stephen Wills Murphy of the Charlottesville, Virginia firm St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute in drafting the petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.