Mississippi, under judge’s order, starts allowing religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi is starting the court-ordered process of letting people cite religious beliefs to seek exemptions from state-mandated vaccinations that children must receive before attending day care or school.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states and has high rates of health problems such as obesity and heart disease. But it has received praise from public health officials for years because it has some of the highest rates of childhood vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and mumps.

In April, U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden ordered Mississippi to join most other states in allowing religious exemptions from childhood vaccinations.

His ruling came in a lawsuit filed last year by several parents who said their religious beliefs have led them to keep their children unvaccinated and out of Mississippi schools. The lawsuit, funded by the Texas-based Informed Consent Action Network, argued that Mississippi’s lack of a religious exemption for childhood vaccinations violates the U.S. Constitution.

Ozerden set a deadline of this Saturday for the state to comply with his order. The Mississippi State Department of Health website will publish information on that day about how people can seek the religious exemptions, according to court papers filed on behalf of Dr. Daniel Edney, the state health officer.

“To be clear, Dr. Edney does not endorse Plaintiffs’ views on vaccination or their arguments that the School Vaccination Law is unconstitutional,” wrote Michael J. Bentley, an attorney representing the health officer.

Bentley wrote that Edney also does not agree with state Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s position that the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law enacted in 2014, provides a religious exemption to the school vaccination law, “though he respects her authority to opine on questions of Mississippi law.”

“In Dr. Edney’s view, the School Vaccination Law is constitutional as enacted by the Mississippi Legislature without a religious exemption,” Bentley wrote.

Mississippi already allowed people to apply for medical exemptions for a series of five vaccinations that are required for children to enroll in public or private school. The immunizations are against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis; measles, mumps and rubella; and chickenpox. Mississippi does not require COVID-19 vaccinations.

Under Mississippi’s new religious exemption process, state health officials cannot question the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs. The exemption must be granted if forms are properly filled out, Bentley wrote.

“The process is meant to respect the beliefs of parents who object to vaccinating their children on religious grounds, while also protecting the health of Mississippi’s 440,000 K-12 students and preserving the gains Mississippi has made in preventing cases of crippling and deadly diseases among school children,” Bentley wrote.

According to the lawsuit, some of the plaintiffs have been homeschooling their children, while others have family or work connections in Mississippi but live in other states that allow religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations.

The only states without religious or personal belief exemptions for school immunization requirements have been California, Connecticut, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mississippi once had a religious exemption for childhood vaccinations, but it was overturned in 1979 by a state court judge who ruled that vaccinated children have a constitutional right to be free from associating with their unvaccinated peers, the lawsuit said.

Over the past several years, Mississippi legislators have rejected proposals to allow religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations, with health officials saying more exemptions could lead to the spread of preventable diseases.

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Cover Photo: Mississippi legislators listen as State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney speaks via teleconference, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Under an order from a federal judge, the Mississippi State Department of Health is publishing information Saturday, July 15, 2023, about how people can apply for religious exemptions from childhood vaccinations. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

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