Judge lets unvaccinated child stay in Kansas City school while family sues over rules

Four families are suing Missouri schools and the state health department over vaccine requirements, calling the process of filing for an exemption a violation of religious freedom.

A federal judge has already ruled that one of the unvaccinated students may continue going to school in Kansas City while the case continues. Before the judge issued the order last week, Crossroads Charter Schools had told the family the student must be vaccinated by mid-September or the child would not be allowed to attend, according to a letter obtained by The Star.

The child’s grandfather, Linus Baker, of Stilwell in Johnson County, is also the attorney representing the families.

Last month, Baker filed a lawsuit in Kansas on behalf of another unvaccinated grandchild, a 4-year-old whom he and his wife adopted as their son. That suit, which names the Blue Valley school district and Kansas state health officials, argues against Kansas’ requirements for filing religious exemptions for vaccines.

The lawsuits come in the midst of the “vaccine wars,” as law professor Ann Marie Marciarille calls them. A professor specializing in health care law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Marciarille said statutory exemptions have been a “flash point across the country.”

More cases have been cropping up, especially in New York and California, since both states eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions for vaccines following the widespread measles outbreak. Health experts point to scientific research showing that vaccines are safe and effective and that unvaccinated children pose a health risk to others.

Missouri and Kansas both still allow religious and medical exemptions. But in the lawsuit, the Missouri families argue their children’s schools and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have made it increasingly difficult to file religious exemptions. In addition to the Kansas City family, the plaintiffs live in Bates, Christian and Miller counties.

Baker claims the schools required the parents to fill out a form provided by the health department, which was only available by going to a medical provider or public health agency.

The complaint alleges the parents were given information about the risks of not vaccinating children, which made them feel dissuaded from filing an exemption. The state department form also warns of the dangers.

Baker said Missouri statute simply requires a written statement from a parent. But schools have followed state vaccination guidelines, as well as those promulgated by the health department, requiring the state form to be filled out.

He argued the process means parents’ religious speech is subject to government approval.

“So basically (the health department) is saying that we’ve got this form and we’re going to write out your objection. We’re going to state it for you. You don’t get to write it the way you want,” Baker said. “And in that, (the health department) is going to put a message in there about how they think vaccinations are OK, and that by exercising your religion, you’re putting everybody in jeopardy, including your own child.”

“The agency has gone rogue,” he said.

Last spring, a Missouri House committee debated a proposal that would prevent public schools, universities, day care centers and doctors from turning away a child with exemption from vaccinations for medical or religious reasons. Marciarille said if the legislation had passed, it might have addressed Baker’s concerns.

“Here’s a case that the legislation was almost sort of predicting would come,” she said. “Somebody thought this might happen in drafting this legislation. And that is that somebody who exercised their right to seek the religious exemption may feel their right is not being acknowledged.”

A federal appeals court ruled on a similar case in Michigan in 2017, in which a mother sought a religious exemption. She claimed that two nurses attempted to dissuade her from filing the exemption and that the required waiver form hindered her ability to practice freedom of religion.

A judge ruled the required form did not inhibit religion, even though it included information about the importance of vaccines. He argued the state did not discriminate against religion or burden the mother’s practice of religion.

“While the purpose of the religious waiver note is to provide information that might cause a parent to reconsider getting a vaccination exemption for his or her children, this does not amount to a disparagement of religion,” the judge wrote in the opinion.

Baker believes the Missouri lawsuit, as well as the judge’s order allowing a child to stay in school unvaccinated, may have statewide implications. In the recent order, U.S. District Court Judge Howard Sachs temporarily allows the student to attend Crossroads Charter Schools, except in the event of a disease outbreak that could be prevented by vaccine.

The four families are requesting a permanent injunction allowing the students to continue going to school without being vaccinated, plus prohibiting the schools from expelling the children because their parents are not in compliance with state health department regulations.

The health department, Crossroads Charter Schools and an attorney representing the school declined interviews.

Marciarille said the lawsuit is “another piece in the mosaic” of the struggle by states to regulate vaccines while preserving religious freedom.

“The public has an interest in having kids vaccinated. We have an interest because we’re worried about protecting those people who have a chronic illness, are pregnant or are too young to be vaccinated,” she said. “But there’s also a public interest in making sure the state of Missouri does not entangle itself in the practice of religion or restrict the free practice of religious beliefs. It’s a tough balance.”

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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.