A controversial and escalating debate over state anti-vaccination laws took a dramatic turn on Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Florida’s challenge to a lower court ruling that struck down a 2011 state law that required parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated to attend school without them.
The Florida Supreme Court partially reinstated the law in 2012 after a lower court judge ruled it violated free-speech rights by failing to offer notice of the laws’ consequences for vaccinating children. It then struck down the law as unconstitutional, concluding that both the online notifications and the law itself amounted to unreasonable invasions of privacy.
Florida has been at the center of a polarized and long-running national debate over vaccine use. About a third of the states have seen outbreaks of the highly contagious strain of the virus responsible for the current public health crisis. Opponents of vaccinations, who argue that there is no compelling scientific evidence to back their position, have inspired others to opt out of receiving vaccines for their children.
“Since the only ‘legitimate’ vaccinations that are covered by the expanded reporting requirements are those for chicken pox and whooping cough, the rule of thumb is that over 90 percent of publicly subsidized students in Florida may have to attend school against their will,” said Patrick Humphries, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union, which intervened in the case in support of the state, in a statement in May.
Florida now joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia that have so-called mandate laws that impose some level of requirement. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts say that the increase in outbreaks across the country is largely attributable to factors beyond the availability of vaccinations. Their supporters say it’s disappointing that the Supreme Court rejected Florida’s argument.
“This is a blow to the health of public health,” said Dr. Christopher Hays, the director of the John Howard Association of State Directors of Public Health, which is not involved in the Florida case. “We know that in Florida alone there are numerous outbreaks of nasty, justifiable, outbreak-causing viruses such as meningitis, measles, and pertussis. Each of these threatens the very essence of public health by spreading so quickly.”
Dr. Michelle Boone, a vaccine policy expert at the University of California at Berkeley, believes the only way that she believes other states can contain the crisis is if they adopt similar laws.
“I think what Florida has done is step on one of the most effective, successful strategies that a state has: to force parents to vaccinate their children,” said Dr. Boone, who led the CDC for four years.
At the Florida Supreme Court, the three justices who joined the Supreme Court decided not to take up the case after the state brought it.
“We find it unusual that in the face of the defendant’s claims in this appeal the Court of Appeals–in particular because the only serious arguments made in this appeal–did not affirm the district court’s ruling,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote in a concurring opinion, according to court records.