Mom Appeals to Have Child Exempt from Immunization

December 13, 2010

A West Virginia woman urged a federal appeals court to reinstate her lawsuit claiming that Mingo County school officials violated her religious rights by insisting that her daughter receive state-mandated immunizations.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case and is expected to rule in a few weeks.

U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin last year dismissed Jennifer Workman's lawsuit seeking to force Lenore Pre-K to 8 School to admit her daughter without the vaccinations. Along with the religious objection, Workman said she was concerned that the vaccinations would cause her daughter to develop autism.

Goodwin said there is little evidence that standard vaccinations aren't safe and noted that West Virginia doesn't allow a religious exemption to immunization of schoolchildren.

Workman's attorney, Patricia Finn, told the panel that West Virginia and Mississippi are the only two "oddball states" that do not offer a religious exemption. Failure to do so violates Workman's religious belief that a child must not be injected with any potentially harmful substance, she said.

"This isn't about science," said Finn, adding that she doesn't personally believe inoculations can cause autism. "It's about free exercise of religion and the right to follow sound medical advice."

She said Workman followed the required procedure of getting a "reputable doctor" to sign a certificate exempting the child from immunization for health reasons, but officials rejected the form.

State Deputy Attorney General Charlene Vaughan said a pediatrician initially rejected Workman's request for an exemption, so the mother found a psychiatrist who would issue the certificate because of her older daughter's autism. Vaughan said that was not sound medical advice because there is no proven link between vaccinations and autism.

Joanna Tabit, an attorney for the Mingo County schools, said the government can override religious practices when the health of the general public is at stake. She also said that states are not required to provide a religious exemption - a point the appeals court judges seemed to embrace.

Justice G. Steven Agee, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, told Workman that the desirability of a religious exemption "would be a great point to argue with the West Virginia General Assembly" rather than with a court.

Finn said after the hearing that Workman still lives in Logan County, W.Va., but sends her daughter to school in Kentucky because that state allows a religious exemption for immunizations.

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