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Two Moms Want Shots Deep-Sixed

But Arkansas says religious exemption for vaccinations only go so far

FRIDAY, Nov. 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In a case that could set a precedent in the ongoing battle over immunization rights, two Arkansas women are suing in federal court to stop the state from forcing their children to be vaccinated.

While one woman is fighting a hepatitis immunization, and the other wants an exemption from a chicken pox vaccine, both say their opposition is based in their Roman Catholic beliefs. They argue that their religious convictions should outweigh state law.

State officials, however, say the two plaintiffs have no choice because they don't qualify for religious-based exemptions granted when an entire religious group finds vaccinations intolerable.

While the state must uphold religious freedom, "we also have to protect the public against communicable diseases," says Reginald Rogers, deputy general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Health.

Like other states, Arkansas requires children to get a variety of vaccinations. In this case, chicken pox immunization before kindergarten and hepatitis B immunization for kids older than 10 were mandated only a year ago.

Susan Brock, a parent of four school-age children, objects to the hepatitis B vaccine because it protects against a disease that is mainly spread through sexual intercourse and intravenous drug use, says her attorney, Mathew Staver. Hepatitis B strikes the liver and can be fatal.

Brock teaches her children to avoid premarital sex and illegal drug use, says Staver, president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel legal organization. "It violates her religious convictions for her to have the state mandate an injection contrary to what she believes. It would be like the government requiring a Jew to eat pork because the government wants to promote pork," he says.

The other mother, Shannon Law, opposes the recently developed chicken pox vaccine because it was derived from cells taken from aborted fetuses, Staver says. Law opposes abortion, and forcing chicken pox vaccination on her son is akin to making someone take a medicine developed during research on Holocaust victims, he says.

The state law allowing religious exemptions is too strict, the lawyer says. "It gives preference to some religious doctrines or institutions over others."

Any ruling against the state would be valid only in Arkansas, but it could set a precedent if similar issues arise elsewhere, Staver says.

Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright heard arguments in the case last week. The judge, who is famous for her rulings in the Paula Jones case against former President Bill Clinton, seemed skeptical of the state law allowing some religious exemption, Staver says.

Rogers, the state health department's attorney, declines to say how he thinks Wright will rule in a decision expected later this year. But he did say the state grants about 400 exemptions to vaccinations each year on religious grounds.

The state makes sure that those who get exemptions have "sincerely held beliefs in a recognized church," he says.

The law puts health officials in the unusual position of deciding what an established religion is, and what it believes. But that's an acceptable standard, says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The state is trying to show that "you are an adherent to a recognized religious tradition," he says. That makes sense because "religion is not seen as subjective, personal and individual," he says.

Instead, he says religion is grounded in society and culture.

What To Do

Learn more about childhood vaccinations in this guide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the immunization requirements of your state? Find out with the help of the National Network for Immunization Information.

SOURCES: Interviews with Reginald Rogers, deputy general counsel, Arkansas Department of Health, Little Rock; Mathew Staver, president and general counsel, Liberty Counsel, Orlando, Fla.; Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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