Johnson County parents sue over vaccine requirement, compare it to military draft

A Johnson County lawyer and his wife — who have never vaccinated their 4-year-old son — are suing Blue Valley schools and state officials, calling Kansas’ immunization requirements unconstitutional and archaic.

Linus and Terri Baker had previously sued the Kansas Department of Children and Families, which in 2017 had notified them it would vaccinate the boy against their wishes. That never happened.

Last year, a federal judge dismissed all claims. Now that the boy is approaching school age, the family is trying again.

This week the Bakers — who are the child’s biological grandparents and now adoptive parents — filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Kansas against the Blue Valley school district, Gov. Laura Kelly, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lee Norman, secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“We have this right of having bodily integrity,” said Linus Baker, who works as a lawyer in Stilwell, in southern Johnson County. “You can’t pump someone’s stomach against their wishes. You can’t make someone take drugs. You can’t make a woman have an abortion. You can’t do a lot of things because of bodily integrity. So why is it we can force a child to be injected with vaccines 24 times? It’s the same principle.”

Spokeswomen for both Blue Valley schools and the state health department on Friday declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it is under review.

But state health officials and vaccine proponents have argued that unvaccinated children pose a health risk to others. They point to the recent measles outbreak in Johnson County and elsewhere, a disease that has reappeared since the anti-vaccination movement has grown.

Fight over custody

The Bakers’ son, who is being referred to as S.F.B in court documents, was born with a heart condition, which required surgery when he was 6 months old.

He’s now physically healthy, according to the new lawsuit, but Linus Baker said he has mental disabilities. The family worries about how vaccines could affect his health. And they have religious objections.

When S.F.B was 2 years old, he was placed in temporary state custody after a Johnson County judge ruled he was a child in need of care. His biological mother — the Bakers’ daughter — was notified that the Kansas Department of Children and Families, or DCF, might vaccinate her son. DCF gave the mother 14 days to submit a written objection.

She did so, according to court documents, but then the judge dismissed the case. The child was never vaccinated.

‘Irrational’ exemptions?

Kansas law provides two exemptions to the school immunization requirement, based on religious beliefs and medical concerns.

To claim the medical exemption, a family must provide an annual written statement signed by a licensed physician stating vaccinations would seriously endanger the life or health of the child. Linus Baker said his child would not qualify for that exemption under state law.

For the religious exemption, the state offers two versions.

To enroll in a child care facility, a parent must sign a statement saying: “As the parent or legal guardian, I state that I am an adherent of a religious denomination whose teachings are opposed to immunizations.”

But to enroll a child in a school or preschool — which is the case with the Bakers’ boy — the parent must submit in writing that “the child is an adherent of a religious denomination whose religious teachings are opposed to such tests or inoculations.”

That’s the statement S.F.B’s mother submitted to the state.

Linus Baker said the statement is “irrational” and “does not comply” with Kansas statutes.

The family does have religious objection to vaccines, he said. Terri Baker is a Christian and holds a strong belief that vaccines pose health risks, despite scientific research showing the benefits far outweigh any risks.

But he argues that a 4-year-old mentally challenged child cannot choose to adhere to a religious denomination.

“As students get older, they certainly formulate their own beliefs. But this is a 4-year-old without the mental capacity to make that decision,” he said. “He likes Spider-Man. But I doubt he knows anything about adhering to a religious denomination.”

In the lawsuit, the Bakers request an injunction allowing their son to attend public or private schools without being vaccinated, and without filing a religious or medical exemption. They also ask for a declaration that Kansas’ exemption statute is “unconstitutionally vague,” and that requiring a child to be an adherent of a religious denomination is a violation of parents’ right to make decisions for their child.

Opposition growing

Most states allow religious exemptions for childhood vaccines. New York recently became the fifth to do away with the exemption, requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason.

Kansas kept in place religious and medical exemptions after adding immunizations against hepatitis A and meningitis to its list of vaccinations required this school year.

Last year, Johnson County’s exemption rate was 2.6% on average, with the majority, 2.2%, claimed for religious reasons.

Linus Baker argues that the law imposes an unconstitutional religious test. He also worries about being forced to provide the name of his religious denomination when filing for an exemption.

Many of his arguments, and concerns about vaccines in general, align with those of hundreds of families throughout Kansas who have been opposing the state’s new immunization requirements.

They argue that the government and pharmaceutical industry are overextending their reach in mandating immunizations.

“You wouldn’t require every child to get their blood drawn in school. … You wouldn’t make every child get a tattoo,” Baker said. “So the idea that we want everybody to do it, it’s kind of like the draft. We drafted people into the military to control their bodies, and it’s kind of the same way with these vaccinations. Everybody says just take one for the team. Well parents have a brain. They get to raise their children the way they want.”

Following outbreaks of diseases thought to be eradicated in this country, states began adding more vaccine requirements — and, in some cases, removing religious exemptions.

Kansas’ new requirements come as the state works to improve on its near-bottom national ranking for teens getting vaccinated for meningitis, a disease that is often fatal if left untreated.

“Vaccines are very safe and effective,” said Charlie Hunt, a senior analyst with the Kansas Health Institute. “Social media has contributed to a lot of misinformation about vaccinations being spread. So that’s a challenge. We try to get the best, accurate information out there, which is that vaccines are very effective.”

Includes reporting by The Star’s Katie Bernard.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.