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Judge Tosses Lawsuit Challenging Missouri's Religious Exemption Form For Vaccines

Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs found that the state's advocacy of vaccinations is secular in nature and not 'hostile to religion.'

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Missouri’s religious exemption form for vaccinations.

Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs on Friday dismissed the case brought on behalf of a student at the Crossroads Academy.

The student, identified as W.B., and his parents, Zach and Audrey Baker, objected to language in the Missouri form encouraging parents to immunize their children and warning of the adverse public health risks of failing to vaccinate.

The Bakers argued that requiring them to sign and submit the form constitutes compelled speech, in violation of their religious beliefs. In addition to the Crossroads Academy, they also sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), the state agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing the vaccination system.

Sachs ruled that an unbroken line of Supreme Court cases has upheld a state’s right to require and advocate for vaccination of school children.

“Such advocacy (right or wrong) deals with public health issues,” Sachs wrote in his 5-page order dismissing the Bakers’ lawsuit. “It is entirely secular in nature and motive, not ‘hostile to religion.’ For instance, it would not be hostile to a religious objection to eating pork for an agency to certify that pork is safe to eat. The certification, like the DHSS language here, is religiously neutral.”

Sachs’ ruling was not unexpected; in November he denied the Bakers’ request for a preliminary injunction, finding that the language in the exemption form is “constitutionally acceptable.”

Missouri law requires students to be immunized, subject to exemptions based on “religious beliefs or medical contraindications.” All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring specified vaccines, and all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons. Forty-five states and Washington, D.C., grant religious exemptions and 15 states also allow philosophical objections.

The Bakers’ attorney, Linus Baker, who is also W.B.’s grandfather, told KCUR that the state’s pre-written form left no room “to say it the way you want.”

“In fact, we’re going to put in a little government message that you don’t like,” he said, referring to the wording of the state form.

The Bakers also challenged Missouri’s religious exemption form on state law grounds. Sachs opted not to take up those challenges and  instead said the Bakers could pursue them in state court.

Two weeks ago they did just that, filing a 103-page lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court objecting to the form on multiple grounds.

Baker represents another grandchild, whom he has since adopted, in a case in federal court in Kansas challenging Kansas’ religious exemption form. That suit names the Blue Valley School District, Gov. Laura Kelly and other state officials as defendants.

While similar to the suit the Bakers filed in federal court in Missouri, it differs in that it’s based on somewhat different constitutional grounds.

Kansas requires a student to be an adherent of a religious denomination in order to invoke the exemption. Baker said that’s unconstitutional “because it favors a religion.”

U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia is expected to rule soon on the state’s motion to dismiss the suit.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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