Federal judge orders Mississippi to add a religious exemption option for school vaccinations

Published: Apr. 18, 2023 at 7:43 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -Seven families filed a challenge in federal court last fall, arguing their First Amendment rights are being violated because the state of Mississippi isn’t offering a religious exemption for school vaccinations.

United States District Judge Halil Suleyman Sul Ozerden granted the preliminary injunction Monday via a bench ruling, and the full order was handed down Tuesday.

”I remember thinking, the air in Mississippi smells freer today,” said Mary Jo Perry, Mississippi Parents for Vaccines Rights President and Co-Director.

Mary Jo Perry is a long-time advocate for vaccine choice. She’s been on the receiving end of a lot of calls from concerned mamas.

“You either vaccinate the child anyway and go against your deeply held conviction, or you leave your job and your career and homeschool, or you move out of state,” she explained.

But in three months, a federal judge says that has to change. Perry says hundreds have left the state because of the lack of options here.

“Now they have the freedom to make the decision for their children that they should have had to begin with,” added Perry.

Walker D. Moller is one of the attorneys on the case. He sent the following statement.

“We are very pleased for what this ruling means for religious freedom in Mississippi. There have been families throughout the state who have been praying and fighting for a religious exemption option for many years.

As a federal judge tasked with interpreting the United States Constitution, Judge Sul Ozerden issued a measured written opinion today recognizing that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution demands that a religious exemption option be provided if the state offers secular exemptions (which it does). I have attached the written opinion. This ruling reaches back to the very founding of our country and recognizes that religious freedom in America is a fundamental right that extends to every citizen, and this right does not depend on the shifting opinions of elected officials.

Practically, what this ruling means is that, by July 15, 2023, Mississippi must provide the option for a religious exemption to the state’s vaccination requirements for schoolchildren.”- Walker D. Moller, Attorney with Siri & Glimstad

Pediatrician and past-President of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. John Gaudet, has a different perspective.

“You want to know that your child is going to be able to learn and not get sick, and diseases such as polio or whooping cough, measles, even the flu, these diseases,” noted Gaudet. “Some of them are not very common these days. But that’s because of vaccines.”

He cautions this on the religious exemptions.

“You’ve got to remember, when enough people have those beliefs, then the other people who may not hold those same beliefs are going to be affected,” said Gaudet.

We reached out to the Department of Health for comment.

“The Mississippi State Department of Health continues to support strong immunization laws that protect our children. Beyond that, it is our long-standing policy that the Agency does not comment on pending litigation.”-Liz Sharlot, MSDH Spokesperson

The order indicates the agency will need to develop a religious exemption process and have to make that process or any forms related to it available on the agency website by July 15.

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