Vaccinations and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment

A mother in Queens New York is suing to overturn the New York City School System’s policy of requiring vaccinations for all students.  (New York Daily News – February 8, 2012)  This is not the usual Jenny McCarthy vaccinations cause autism claptrap.  Instead, this comes in the guise of religious freedom.  The New York Daily News that one parent, Nicole Phillips, said “We don’t want anything being put into our bodies at all.  Another parent, Fabian Mendoza-Vaca, is reported to have claimed that “It is my opinion that resorting to vaccinations demonstrates a lack of faith in God, which would anger God and therefore be sacrilegious.”  Id.

As Slate notes, the public’s concept of a “right” has become so broad as to be nonsensical.  Indeed, the “right” advanced by both Phillips and Mendoza-Vaca is not the right to their free exercise of religion; but rather, the right to dictate public health regulations based upon their assertion of a religious belief.  This distinction is critical to First Amendment jurisprudence, because fundamentally large swathes of the public interpret their First Amendment rights to be the right to be free from disagreement, insult, or any action contrary to their religious belief.

This broad misinterpretation of First Amendment rights makes those rights a sword instead of a shield.  The First Amendment is protective rather than aggressive.  It represented the framers’ conception of an ideologically and religiously diverse union.  Within the framework of the First Amendment disparate and contradictory religious and political beliefs could co-exist in civil society.  To achieve this constitutional end, the First Amendment cannot be interpreted to block the implementation of public health regulations or to sequester unpopular beliefs merely because they are contradictory or offensive to you own belief system.

The vaccination debate is one of the most idiotic, ill informed examples of the public’s ignorant rejection of scientific knowledge and empirical rationalism.  There is no debate that childhood diseases kill children.  There are rafts of data showing that that infant and childhood mortality from diseases like polio, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, and whooping cough has dropped to almost zero.  The statement that vaccinations cause autism has been thoroughly refuted, even to the extent that the doctor behind it has lost his medical license.

Perhaps we live in a world that is so distant from one in which a child’s death from death was routine, that we have forgotten that toll that disease took on families and communities.  This is a luxury easily lost.  Vaccinations do not create total immunity from disease.  An effective vaccination program relies upon compliance.  If there are pockets of infection the healthiest children are probably safe, but children with weak or compromised immune systems are at risk.

If you refuse to vaccinate your children, they are at risk and they put others at risk.  Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but you are not entitled to act upon your beliefs to the harm of others.  Perhaps you can argue that no one has died yet.  But that argument demonstrates a false sense of security and a fundamental misunderstanding of preventive medicine.

At the heart of this debate is the fact that you do not have the right to put your children or other people’s children at risk out of your own selfishness or ignorance.  I frankly do not care what you believe.  You are welcome to any religious belief you like.  It’s none of my business; and I’m sure you wouldn’t agree with my own religious beliefs.  However, beliefs are distinct from actions.  You are not free to take any action – no matter the reason – that carries the likelihood of physical harm to another person.  Your beliefs cannot impose on another’s fundamental right to their health and safety.

This distinction between the freedom of belief and the freedom of action is inherent to the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.  The framers did not intend for your belief to impose upon the liberty interests of another person.  If your belief were permitted to impose upon the liberty interests of another, then there is no free exercise of religion.  Your rights stop where another’s liberty interests begin.

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