Mississippi parents can opt out of vaccinating their children for school on account of religious beliefs, a federal judge has ruled. 

U.S. District Judge Halil Sul Ozerden on Monday issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit, filed last year by parents who said they’ve decided not to vaccinate their children because of religious beliefs, as first reported by Magnolia Tribune.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and various school officials. They claim that mandatory vaccinations violate the Constitution.

Mississippi led the nation in childhood vaccinations as one of six states without a religious exemption for vaccines. The others are California, Connecticut, Maine, New York and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Kaye Bender, the executive director of the Mississippi Public Health Association, said when a child isn’t vaccinated, the effects extend beyond that child’s personal health. 

“Unvaccinated children don’t put just themselves at risk. They endanger all children they come into contact with as well as some adults and perhaps their entire community. So from a public health prevention perspective, MPHA strongly urges that childhood vaccinations be preserved.”

While the organization does not take a position on the pending litigation or any potential appeals, it has long advocated for full immunizations of all children and adults, Bender said. 

“Childhood immunizations have proved themselves over the years as safe and effective disease preventatives,” Bender said. “They protect children from illness now, from possible complications in the future, and may even save the child’s life.”

The plaintiffs argued that Mississippi already allows for medical exemptions in the case of five vaccinations required for kids to attend school: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis; measles, mumps and rubella; and chickenpox. 

Attorney General Lynn Fitch agreed that the law must allow the same right for families with religious beliefs that prevent them from vaccinating their children, according to documents.

The ruling will likely conclude the lawsuit, filed by parents Amanda Bosarge, Jaquelyn Butler, Kimberly Harrell, William Morgan, Paul Perkins, Brandi Renfroe, and Jeana Stanley, unless the attorney general’s office appeals the injunction or Ozerden does not enter a written order consistent with his ruling from the bench – both of which are unlikely. 

“We appreciate the judge’s thoughtful ruling from the bench and will give full consideration to his written order when provided,” said Debbee Hancock, communications director for the Attorney General’s office, in an emailed statement. “General Fitch has always been of the belief that there is a religious liberty exemption, as stated in our filings in this case, and we look forward to working with the Department of Health to ensure faithful execution of the judge’s order.”

Ozerden is giving the Mississippi State Department of Health until July 15 to come up with a process to allow people to request religious exemptions. 

Liz Sharlot, communications director of the department of health, said it was the agency’s long-standing policy to avoid commenting on pending litigation, but added that “the Mississippi State Department of Health continues to support strong immunization laws that protect our children.”

In a recent state board of health meeting, state officials touted Mississippi’s high childhood vaccination rate, saying the state led the nation with 98.9% of children entering kindergarten with complete vaccinations for the 2020-21 school year. 

John Gaudet, past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Mississippi’s high vaccination rate should be preserved and protected.

“We’re at the bottom of the heap in many health metrics, but at the top of the heap in protecting our children from vaccine-preventable illnesses,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, and of them is because when we send our kids to kindergarten, we require them to be vaccinated, to not only protect them but to protect the other children in the classroom.

“I think that comes from a sense of community, and it’s endured for decades — that we take care of ourselves and we take care of those around us.”

Gaudet, who currently teaches pediatrics and clinical medicine at William Carey University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, said deaths from measles and similar illnesses are rare because of the state’s high vaccination rate. That’s why Gaudet said he’s disappointed in the ruling — the outcome could prove fatal.

“When the number of vaccinated individuals at a school starts going down, kids who are susceptible, kids who have cancer or take immunosuppressant drugs, are more likely to get sick,” he said. “Not only that but more kids who are vaccinated are likely to get sick if numbers go down. This is something we need to continue to keep as a high priority.”

Jean Cook, chief of communications at the Mississippi Department of Education, said that the education department requires that schools have documentation on file regarding vaccines, but the department of health sets the policy regarding vaccine requirements. 

Vaccine requirement opponents have been unsuccessfully lobbying the Legislature for a religious exemption provision for years. Mississippi hasn’t had a religious exemption for child vaccinations since 1979.

Nationally, the rate of childhood vaccinations has fallen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Mississippi does not require the COVID-19 vaccine for school entry.

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.