Written by Don Byrd

As a follow-up to a post from a few weeks ago, a Kentucky state court has refused to grant an injunction that would bar the Northern Kentucky Health District from enforcing its policy prohibiting unvaccinated students from attending or participating in school events during an outbreak of chicken pox. Jerome Kunkel, a senior member of the Assumption Academy basketball team, explained that he refused the vaccination for religious reasons and that barring him from attending school and from extracurricular activities like the state basketball tournament violated his religious liberty rights and was entitled to an injunction.

The court disagreed:

After hearing the testimony at the Hearing, as well as a review of the timeline of the steps taken . . . the Court does not find there is a substantial probability that Kunkel will succeed on this claim. Additionally… the [health district] is not mandating that Jerome receive the vaccine. K.R.S. 214.036 allows that no child shall be required to be immunized if the child’s parents, or in this case the individual, as Jerome is now 18 years old, are opposed to medical immunization against disease, and who object by a written sworn statement to the immunization of such child on religious grounds. Karen Kunkel signed the… Declination on Religious Grounds to Required Immunizations form on behalf of Jerome as he was not yet 18 when the school year began. The form notes, “In the event that the county health department or state health department declares an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease for which proof of immunity for a child cannot be provided, he or she may not be allowed to attend childcare or school for up to three (3) weeks, or until the risk period ends.”

Meanwhile, in New York State, a commissioner with the Department of Education denied an appeal, upholding a school district’s refusal to grant a religious accommodation from immunization requirements after determining that the parents in that case had not established that their opposition to vaccination stemmed from a sincerely-held religious belief, despite their statement that their religious beliefs disallow vaccinations.

I do not find that petitioner’s conclusory statement that it is “against our belief system” to allow “vaccines to enter our bodies,” standing alone, evinces a genuine and sincerely-held religious belief.  I have held that mere citations to statements that are religious in nature, general statements about God, the perfection of the immune system, and citations to Biblical verses and passages, without more, are not sufficient to establish genuine and sincere religious beliefs against immunization.  I find that petitioner’s statements quoted above constitute general statements concerning petitioner’s religious beliefs; as such, they are insufficient to demonstrate a genuine and sincerely-held religious belief against immunization.  

For more on the topic of vaccinations and religious objections, see a 2015 column from Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel Holly Hollman during a religious liberty controversy that year surrounding a measles outbreak.