Q: I am hearing more and more about the measles epidemic. Can my school district lawfully require that my child be vaccinated, and if I establish that my child is exempt from the State’s vaccination requirement, can the State of New York still temporarily prevent him from going to school when there is an outbreak?
A. Yes. It has long been the law in New York that all school age children must be vaccinated, unless the parent can establish that the parent has a sincere religious belief or some legitimate medical reason for not vaccinating a child. In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – the highest federal court in New York – ruled that public schools in New York can lawfully keep unvaccinated students out of school when there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease like measles, even in situations where the child is exempt on religious or medical grounds from the State’s vaccination requirement. Phillips v. City of New York, No. 14‐2156‐cv (2d Cir., Jan. 7, 2015).
Parents who establish to the satisfaction of New York State that they hold “genuine and sincere” religious beliefs against vaccination may send their children to school unvaccinated. Similarly, if the parents establish that there is a legitimate medical reason for not vaccinating their child, that child can be exempted from the vaccination requirement. Many parents are surprised to learn that a mere fear about a vaccine’s safety is not a recognized “medical reason” for not vaccinating a child. Rather, to obtain a medical exemption, under New York State law, a physician licensed to practice medicine in New York must certify that an immunization may be detrimental to a child's health.