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Parents in Rockland County, New York, are suing their local government for banning unvaccinated kids from public places, including school, during a spate of measles infections.
One mother, who’s unnamed in the lawsuit filed Wednesday, alleged the county’s “capricious” executive order violated her child’s First Amendment rights and has kept her from attending school. It’s the second lawsuit filed this week; a group of several dozen parents banded together to sue the county on behalf of their unvaccinated children who can’t adequately learn during the ban, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reported Wednesday.
The emergency declaration will last for 30 days and keeps unvaccinated minors from places like schools, malls, places of worship, restaurants, and even hospitals. County Executive Ed Day, who instituted the controversial ban on March 26, sought to protect more unvaccinated kids from getting sick. But the policy has also managed to stoke tension in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community along the Hudson Valley outside of New York City.
The parents and all of the children involved in the cases, however, do not have measles and did not attend schools where measles was present, according to the lawsuits.
In its response to the parents’ lawsuits, the county said it’s seen 166 cases of measles since October. The ban was considered a last resort after other preventive measures didn’t stem the tide of illness, the county argues in a memo filed in court Thursday.
“Persons with measles or with recent exposures continued to frequent public venues, potentially causing the spread of the outbreak to other areas of the county,” Rockland County’s lawyers wrote. “It has become a matter of public emergency that may engulf the entire county.”
Rockland County joins places like Clark County, Washington, and Michigan’s Oakland County, also experiencing outbreaks. Altogether, the nationwide measles outbreak is one of the worst since the highly contagious disease was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded 387 cases this year alone.
Counties have broad legal authority to institute quarantines during outbreaks if it’s in the interest of public health, and schools were keeping unvaccinated kids from showing up before the countywide ban was even in place.
But parents sued over that, too — and lost. A federal district judge ruled on March 13 that the Rockland County Health Department could keep kids from school until the outbreak died down.
The recent ire against the parents of unvaccinated children has raised questions about whether religious or moral exemptions to vaccines are appropriate. Down the road, that could lead to awkward and contentious legal fights where courts or lawmakers are forced to determine whether it’s right to keep religious, unvaccinated kids out of the public.
The mother and her young daughter who filed the lawsuit Wednesday, for example, have a religious exemption. And they argue that Rockland County has only provided “a strong-armed vaccination mandate that discriminates against non-vaccinated children in Rockland County, who have sincere religious beliefs contrary to the practice of vaccinating.”
Cover image: This Wednesday, March 27, 2019 file photo shows a sign explaining the local state of emergency because of a measles outbreak at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)