Judge strikes down vaccine injunction request


A federal judge declined to put California’s vaccination law on pause, denying an injunction request that would have allowed families to keep claiming personal-belief exemptions while a legal fight against the new statute continues in court.

The Aug. 26 ruling, made by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, means all kindergartners and seventh-graders in public and private schools across the state must prove they are fully inoculated against 10 diseases — from diphtheria to tetanus — unless they have a medical exemption form signed by a licensed doctor.

On July 1, a coalition of parents and other organizations, including three plaintiffs from San Diego County, sued the state. They said the law, Senate Bill 277, violated children’s constitutional rights to an equal public education and free exercise of religion.

There are two other lawsuits pending against the law, both filed by parents in Los Angeles. One of those suits includes an injunction request that was filed on Aug. 4.

The San Diego case was the first to have an injunction hearing and ruling.

In his 18-page order, Sabraw cited more than a century of legal precedents that have protected states’ rights to compel vaccination for the purpose of protecting the public against infectious diseases.

“Even outside the context of vaccination laws, the Supreme Court has reiterated the fundamental rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution do not overcome the state’s interest in protecting a child’s health,” Sabraw wrote.

Parents in the San Diego case have said they are not questioning the state’s ability to require vaccination, but rather its ability to take away the right to personal-belief exemptions. Sabraw also rejected this second complaint.

“The Constitution does not require the provision of a religious exemption to vaccination requirements, much less a personal-belief exemption,” Sabraw wrote.

His ruling on the requested injunction did not address the full merits of the overall lawsuit. Legal standard simply asks a judge to determine whether a given case has a good chance of success at trial. If it does, then the idea is to stop the effects of a disputed decision or action until the the case is fully argued and decided.

Using this threshold, Sabraw said, the plaintiffs’ case came up short.

“Plaintiffs have not shown they have a likelihood of success on their claim that SB 277 violates the right to education under California law,” he wrote.

The ruling did not appear to dull the resolve of Robert Moxley, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“The principle we have to defend and establish is the right of healthy people to make their own health-care choices. We’re going to have to delve into a thicket that, of course, a preliminary injunction hearing just doesn’t delve into,” Moxley said. “What we are exploring is individual rights versus the power of the state, and all of the nuances and legal background is going to have to be applied to vaccines which, obviously, it never has. When most of the precedents being relied on are 100 years old, there is room to litigate this thing.”

The coalition that helped get SB 277 passed last year cautiously celebrated Friday’s ruling.

Catherine Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition, said the public-health community and vaccination advocates respect personal rights but also believe the needs of the greater whole come first.

“It’s clear that unless parents are required to vaccinate their kids, many of them won’t,” she said. “It’s not about what people feel about immunization, and it’s not necessarily about individual rights. In this case, it’s about what’s best for the community.”

This legal case is the latest flash point in an ongoing controversy about vaccination rules in California, particularly after the public became more aware that personal-belief exemption rates were rising at many private schools and at public schools in typically affluent neighborhoods. Although vaccination rates are still generally much higher at public schools, and the state’s overall vaccination rate is about 90 percent, many began to worry that a trend away from vaccination could hurt so-called “herd immunity” — the concept that near-universal inoculation prevents disease from spreading much in a community.

People who resist childhood vaccination are not a monolithic group. Some are outright opposed to all vaccines because of concerns that these shots cause conditions such as autism, despite many peer-reviewed scientific papers that show otherwise.

Others criticize the pace and breadth of the government’s vaccination schedule, preferring that their children get immunized at less frequent intervals.

Still others object to specific vaccinations, including those for hepatitis and chickenpox, because they prevent disease in older kids or adults but not young children.

And there are people who fear adverse medical reactions to vaccination because their immediate family members or relatives have experienced health problems after inoculation.

The public-health community has repeatedly assured parents that these concerns are unfounded, but the anti-vaccine advocates remain skeptical.

Rebecca Estepp of Poway, a mother and a vaccine critic who supports the lawsuit linked to Friday’s ruling, said she has not heard of many parents who decided to get their children vaccinated now that SB 277 has taken effect. She said some have decided to homeschool, while others are considering moving out of state.

“These are healthy children who are still going to church and Boy Scouts and Little League and dance class, so this really doesn’t do much for public health because they’re still out there in the community,” Estepp said.

It’s important to note that SB 277 applies directly to children entering kindergarten or the seventh grade, two milestone years for vaccination.

Those who had a personal-belief exemption in place last year will not have to prove vaccination until they reach one of these “checkpoint” grades.

— Paul Sisson writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune