As Measles Cases Soar, Judge Rejects Religious Exemption Claim

The claim that religious belief requires people not to vaccinate is not credible if no recognized posek or religious authority issues a halachic ruling backing it, a judge proclaimed in a landmark ruling, rejecting the request by some parents to turn back New York City’s ban on going unvaccinated in Williamsburg.

The ruling, by Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Lawrence Knipel, elated Orthodox community members anxious to stamp out a resurgence of the measles within their ranks. A number of askonim, however, have expressed concern over the sweeping nature of the judge’s decision in nixing a religious freedom petition.

The lawsuit was brought by five mothers in Williamsburg over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rare ban on going unvaccinated in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood. Williamsburg, along with Rockland County, is the epicenter of an outbreak that on Monday reached a grim record of being the largest in a quarter century.

The parents claimed that their religion required them not to inject foreign substances into their bodies, which they said were created “perfect.” They also claimed that the number of confirmed cases did not reach crisis proportions to justify the unprecedented declaration of a public health emergency.

Knipel wrote in his ruling dated April 18—which was upheld on Monday by an appeals court—that the city presented sufficient evidence that “amply demonstrate the gravity of the situation.”

“The unvarnished truth is that these diagnoses represent the most significant spike in incidences of measles in the United States in many years,” Knipel wrote, “and that the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is at its epicenter. It has already begun to spread to remote locations.”

He also swept aside as “completely unsupported by studies [and] medical literature” the petitioners claim, which is mentioned by some conspiracy groups, that the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella was a greater risk to health than the disease it cures.

The portion which denied the plaintiffs a religious exemption made the greatest wave, particularly since there is growing support by state legislators to eliminate the ability to claim a religious objection to vaccination.

Knipel wrote that the mothers are unqualified to claim a religious exemption since they “merely state, in essence, that in the individual opinion of each of the affiants, taking the vaccine is violative of their religion. These opinions are entirely unsupported by an affidavit of a religious official (priest, rabbi, etc.) or other doctrinal documentation tending to support their opinion.”

The judge concluded his legal brief by noting the New York legislature’s declaration when enacting the changes to the public health law in 1968 that “Among the truly great medical advances of this generation have been the development of proved methods of reducing the incidence of smallpox and measles, the once great cripplers. Public health statistics show clearly that immunization is effective and safe.”

The outbreak on Monday surpassed the 700 mark in the US, spread across 22 states. There have thankfully been no deaths, but 66 victims were hospitalized. Children under the age of five, who usually did not yet receive the second booster shot to beef up immunity, accounted for half of the confirmed cases.

“The outbreaks in New York City and New York state are the largest and longest-lasting since measles elimination in 2000,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s director for immunization, said at a news conference Monday. “The longer this continues, the greater the chances that measles will again get a foothold in the United States.”

In New York City, primarily in Williamsburg, 423 people have been diagnosed since the outbreak began this past Sukkos. The de Blasio administration has been energetically battling it, rolling out a ban on going unvaccinated in Williamsburg and levying steep fines on those who disobey.

As of Monday, 57 people have been slapped with the fine. The penalty is doubled if they don’t appear at a court date.

Seven yeshivos have shut by the health department for allowing unvaccinated children into class or for not cooperating by sharing attendance rolls. Five have since been allowed to reopen while the remaining two—Tiferes Bnos on Marcy Ave. with a student population of over 250 and the Nitra boys’ preschool yeshiva—were shuttered on Monday.

“Schools that continue to disregard our direction during the outbreak will be closed down until they can prove to the Health Department that they will comply,” the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, said in a statement. “The reality is, the longer it takes schools and individuals to comply with our Order, the longer this outbreak will continue.”

The vast majority of the 423 cases in New York City were members of the Orthodox community. An additional seven people who came down with the disease were infected by contact with a frum Jew who had the disease. Only one person diagnosed with measles during this outbreak does not report an exposure associated with the Orthodox community, according to a city press release.

The health department took pains to note that the approximately 95 percent vaccination rate among Orthodox Jews is equal or exceeds that of the general population.