Much has been written about parents that refuse to vaccinate their children. But as far as we know, this is the first time that the First Amendment has come up.
Michigan requires that children be vaccinated. But like almost every other state, Michigan provides waivers from the vaccination requirement if parents have religious objections. A parent in Michigan need only visit the local health department, state his or her objection, and receive a waiver. (Michigan used to have one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children.)
Tara Nikolao, a devout Catholic, sought such an exemption. When she went to her local health department, two nurses “pressed her for more information,” stating that she had to “engage in a back and forth discussion,” which Michigan law requires. The nurses told her that no religion opposes vaccination, and they gave her Michigan’s “Religious Wavier Note,” which states that parents who don’t vaccinate their children “would be in more proximate cooperation with evil” than those who do, “because of the life saving nature of vaccines.” Ms. Nikolao was not persuaded, and she was given a waiver.
Then, she sued. She claimed that the nurses and the state health department violated her First Amendment rights both under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. The Sixth Circuit rejected her free-exercise claim, finding that Michigan did not coerce her (because she ultimately received the waiver). The Court also rejected her establishment-clause claim, finding that Michigan’s waiver process does not violate the separation of church and state. Although the waiver process includes religious-related information and a mandatory discussion with state health officials, the state’s immunization and waiver processes have a secular purpose—to ensure that as many children are vaccinated as possible to promote public health and safety.
Case: Nikolao v. Lyon, No. 17-1367 (6th Cir. Nov. 7, 2017) (opinion here)