Federal Court Holds That IDEA Does Not Exempt Students from Mandatory Immunization Law, Denies Stay-Put Request by Parents of Unvaccinated Students

On June 13, 2019, New York repealed its long-standing religious exemption to the state’s mandatory vaccination law. All families in the state, except those who obtain a statement from a physician certifying that “immunization may be detrimental to a child’s health,” are now required to vaccinate their children in order to enroll in any public, private, or parochial school.

A group of parents of six unrelated students with IDEA-eligible disabilities who had previously obtained religious exemptions to the state’s vaccination mandates promptly filed suit. (V.D. et al. v. State of New York, 74 IDELR 279 (E.D. NY. 08/19/19)). The parents claimed that the amended mandatory vaccination law was preempted by the IDEA, and requested both a preliminary injunction to prevent implementation of the amended law as well as stay-put orders to maintain their students’ current placements while they proceeded with this litigation.

Specifically, the parents argued that the amended vaccination law conflicted with the IDEA because (1) it created an improper precondition for IDEA-protected to students to obtain services, and (2) it allowed for the “summary dismissal” of non-compliant students with IEPs without adequate notice or procedural safeguards.

The court disagreed and held against the parents.  First, the court noted that conditioning school enrollment on vaccination has long been considered a permissible state mandate reasonably grounded in a state’s public health and welfare interests, and represented one of many standard preconditions to enrollment regularly established by the state and local boards of education, like curricula and dress code mandates. Second, the court found no conflict between the IDEA and compulsory immunization, as the students’ disabilities did not alter their ability to comply with the law.

Significantly, the court also denied their requests for stay-put orders, holding that their failure to comply with the vaccination law was a unilateral parental enrollment decision, not a change in educational placement that would trigger stay-put relief. The vaccination mandate, by itself, did not impose a change in placement or necessitate any actual alterations to the students’ IEPs, as their religious exemptions were never an element of the students’ placements. Rather, the vaccination mandate was a system-wide rule that applied equally to all students, disabled or not, and the IDEA does not create a right to a religious exemption.

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