W.Va. girl not exempt from vaccinations

Jessica M. Karmasek Nov. 15, 2011, 10:00am


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of a West Virginia mother who was denied the right to claim a religious exemption for her child under a state law requiring that children be vaccinated before attending public school.

In Workman v. Mingo County Board of Education, petitioner Jennifer Workman said her faith as a member of the Bapticostal Church prohibited her from subjecting her younger daughter, born in 2002, to any medical harm.

Workman pointed to her older daughter's own health problems, which developed soon after she began receiving immunizations.

Under state law, children cannot be admitted to public school unless they have been immunized against diphtheria, polio, rubeola, rubella, tetanus and whooping cough.

A child can be exempted from the rule if a medical exemption is provided by a doctor indicating vaccines are not recommended.

In this case, Workman feared the immunizations would also hurt her younger daughter, so she obtained a certificate from a child psychiatrist, exempting her from the vaccines.

Mingo County's health officer approved the certificate and the application for exemption. However, Dr. Cathy Slemp, the acting head of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources at the time, recommended rejecting the exemption.

Soon after, Workman received a letter notifying her that the exemption was denied and that without vaccines her daughter could not attend her local school.

As a result, Workman was forced to home-school her daughter, according to her lawsuit, filed in April 2009 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Workman sued the Mingo school board, former State Schools Superintendent Steven L. Paine, former Mingo Superintendent Dwight Dials, and the state DHHR.

Workman claimed in her suit the denial of "religious accommodation" violated her rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection under the First and 14th amendments.

The district court dismissed the case in November 2009. Workman subsequently appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit, finding Workman's constitutional challenges to the West Virginia statute to be "without merit," affirmed the lower court's ruling in March.

"Here, Workman does not explain how the statute at issue is facially discriminatory; indeed, her complaint is not that it targets a particular religious belief but that it provides no exception from general coverage for hers," it wrote.

Following its decision, Workman, with the help of The Rutherford Institute, filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court in July.

The institute, which describes itself as one of the nation's leading advocates of civil liberties and human rights, cited concerns about religious freedoms and the need for parents to be able to direct the medical and educational well-being of their children.

"It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court sidestepped this important constitutional issue," John W. Whitehead, president of the institute, said in a statement Monday.

"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."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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