Thursday, November 10, 2022
The Second Circuit ruled that a district court improperly granted summary judgment to the Rockland County Department of Health (NY) and its officials in a claim by parents of minor children that the Department's order excluding unvaccinated children from school violated their right to free exercise of religion.
The ruling means that the district court must hold a trial to resolve disputed facts surrounding the claim before ruling on the free exercise issue.
The case, M.A. v. Rockland County Department of Health, arose when the Department excluded children who were not vaccinated against measles from attending school. The Department issued the order in response to a measles outbreak.
Parents sued, arguing that the order violated free exercise, among other things. The district court ruled that the order was neutral with regard to religion and generally applicable. It applied Smith's rational basis review and granted summary judgment to the district.
The Second Circuit reversed. The court said there were facts in dispute as to the order's neutrality and general applicability that made the case inappropriate for summary judgment.
While a reasonable juror could conclude that [a Department official's] statements [about individuals who oppose vaccines] evinced religious animus, rendering the Declaration not neutral, a reasonable juror could also conclude the opposite. Similarly, there are disputes of fact regarding whether the Declaration, in practice, primarily affected children of religious objectors or whether there was a sizable population of children who were unvaccinated for a variety of non-medical and non-religious reasons. There are also disputes as to whether the County's purpose in issuing the Declaration was to stop the spread of measles or to encourage vaccination. Given these fact-intensive issues, the district court's grant of summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' Free Exercise Claim was erroneous.
The case now goes back to the district court for a trial on these questions.