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Missouri appeals court rules charter school lawfully denied entry to unvaccinated children

By: - December 8, 2020 12:09 pm

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Parents must use forms created by the state health department, not send handwritten notes, to claim the religious exemption to vaccinations allowing non-immunized children to attend classes, a Missouri court ruled Tuesday.

The Western District Court of Appeals, acting in a case from Jackson County, ruled that Crossroads Academy-Central Street, a charter school, had acted within the law by unenrolling the children of Zach and Audrey Baker after their parents refused to complete the required form.

“The facts pled in the petition clearly establish that the Baker children are not vaccinated and that the Bakers have not filed the required exemption on an original Form 11 to fall within the relevant exemption,” Judge Gary Witt wrote in the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel. “Crossroads, in compliance with their obligations under the law, properly determined that the Baker children were not allowed to enroll or attend school until the Bakers become compliant with the law.”

The case is one of several filed by the family claiming violation of their religious rights under the Missouri and federal constitutions and also claiming that requiring a specific form exceeds the authority granted to the Department of Health and Senior Services.

Some of the cases have been dismissed while another is pending. The appeals court did not address any constitutional claims, noting they were raised at the appellate level but not in the trial court.

The Bakers asserted the Missouri statute on childhood vaccinations was unconstitutional, but the court found “the Bakers failed to cite to any specific provisions in the Missouri Constitution or United States Constitution that they claim were violated by the statutory scheme.”

The ruling, which is limited to administrative issues, could become part of the debate over who should be vaccinated for COVID-19. One bill has already been filed in the Missouri House that would eliminate the requirement children enrolling in parochial and private schools be vaccinated and eliminate the requirement that parents use a specific form to claim the exemption.

State Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon, said she is aware of the Baker case and has spoken to the family but did not file the bill specifically because of their lawsuits. Her bill is intended to limit the vaccination requirement to students attending government-funded schools only, she said.

Her bill would allow parents to write on a plain sheet of paper that they are claiming the religious exemption and requires schools to accept it. Her bill would also expand the basis for claiming the exemption to include non-religious conscientious objections.

She is not anti-vaccination, Pollock said.

“I think it is all about choice and all I want to do is give parents the right to choose whether or not they are vaccinated,” she said.

The requirement for a specific form is “ridiculous,” Pollock said.

“We have some health departments that are requiring parents attend a class or see the nurse or get a special seal or it has to be on card stock, all these ridiculous requirements these parents have to jump through.”

The bill would also bar the state health department from expanding the list of required immunizations beyond eight listed diseases – polio, rubella, rubeola, mumps, tetanus, pertussis, diphtheria and hepatitis B.

Current law allows the department to add any vaccine-preventable childhood illness identified by the Centers for Disease Control to the requirement for immunizations.

“I don’t want the CDC to have free rein in Missouri to add any vaccination they want,” Pollock said.

Deciding which illnesses require a vaccination is the job of the legislature, Pollock said, adding that she objects to any requirement that children be vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to attend school.

“I don’t like any kind of mandate,” she said. “We live in a free country.”

The Bakers enrolled one of their children at Crossroads Academy in the fall of 2017, a second in the fall of 2018 and a third in the fall of 2019. When the school told the parents in 2019 the third child could not remain in school without vaccinations or the exemption claim, Audrey Baker sent a note stating the statute that provides for the exemption and that she was claiming it on behalf of her child.

The note stated she was willing to fill out the required form if the school provided it but that the school refused.

The school responded by telling every parent of an unvaccinated child that they must provide the forms and told the Bakers specifically that their three children would not be allowed to attend without it.

After a meeting with the charter school board, which denied their request to allow their child to continue attending classes, they sued. The appeal sought judicial review under statutes allowing the courts to take a new look at administrative decisions, but the trial court dismissed that portion of the suit, and the appeals court agreed.

Those issues are part of another case, Witt wrote in his opinion.

“Because this matter involves ongoing litigation between the parties, it would be inappropriate for us to render any opinion as to the merits,” Witt wrote. “This court lacks the ability to issue advisory opinions.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.