California Vaccine Bill SB 277 Spurs Federal Lawsuit

Doctor holding an injection needleIn California, children must be vaccinated against a variety of diseases before entering public or private school, unless their parents claim exemption based on medical religious or “personal beliefs.” This past year, more than 12,700 parents of California kindergartners filed personal belief exemptions, while another 915 filed medical exemptions. However, this all changed when Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 277—  a law which effectively eliminates parents’ religious and personal belief exemptions for immunization requirements. The law took effect on July 1, 2016, triggering public outcry by parents who believe the legislation violates federal and state constitutional rights of due process.

Under Senate Bill 277, students are not able to attend class without proof of vaccinations. And because of this new bill, dozens of California children and adolescents were forced to miss opening days of school due to a lack of immunizations.

SB 277 sparks federal lawsuit, public outcry

Parents are taking their claims to court in a recently filed lawsuit against the state of California and the CA Department of Education and Public Health. The federal complaint, brought by 17 individuals and four non-profit organizations, argues that the bill is double-sided, allowing exemption for special needs or disabled students from vaccination requirements. According to the plaintiffs, several California school districts are still refusing to let these students remain in school.

The federal lawsuit cites the dilemma faced by lead claimant, Ana Whitlow, whose seventh grade son was denied enrollment due to lack of vaccines, even though prior testing showed the child was already immune to tetanus, whooping cough and diphtheria – some of the biggest medical concerns in schools. All of the plaintiffs assert that they have sustained “severe and irreparable injury under the law.” One of the suit’s plaintiffs – non-profit Education 4 All Foundation – told the Sacramento Bee that U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw is deciding whether he will block SB 277 while the litigation proceeds against the state of California.

Vaccine law a contested public policy

A 2014 measles outbreak at Disneyland, along with several outbreaks of whooping cough in schools across California ushered in stricter requirements for personal belief exemptions. As an example, in 2014, legislators began requiring the signature of a physician who acknowledged informing parents about the benefits and risks of vaccinations.

While personal belief exemptions have been on the decline across California in recent years, SB 277 remains a contested public policy. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children based on personal or religious beliefs may instead allow them to be excluded from daycare and school. Opponents believe the law represents a “gross government overreach” into the private lives of residents. At present, only West Virginia and Mississippi have laws aligned with SB 277.

The California Department of Education has not issued a statement about the federal lawsuit, though Tom Torlakson – state Superintendent– told media that vaccinating students “is the law, and it’s the right thing to do for public health.”

Related Resources:

  1. Sacramento Bee, Opponents try to block California vaccination law as school starts
  2. International Business Times, California Vaccine Bill SB 277 Debate: 5 Things To Know About Vaccination Law That’s Among Strictest In US

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