The development of the COVID vaccine has brought vaccination questions to the forefront of the discussion in many family law cases. Although a COVID vaccine is not yet available for most children, the concern is already on many parents’ minds. Parents are wondering whether they have the final say in whether to have their children vaccinated for COVID and other diseases.
New Jersey’s vaccine exemption
New Jersey statutes contain a religious exemption regarding vaccinations for children. Under NJSA 26:1A-9.1, parents can assert a right not to have children receive vaccinations otherwise required for school attendance because it would violate the child’s religious beliefs. This exemption must be made by the parent in a written statement. If challenged in court, a parent may have to prove the sincerity of the claimed religious belief. The statute also makes an exception – the right to exempt children from vaccinations can be suspended if the State Commission of Health declares an emergency. It is not yet known whether the COVID pandemic would constitute such an emergency if a pediatric vaccine becomes widely available.
What happens when parents disagree?
The question about what authority the court has regarding vaccinating children becomes more complicated when the parents do not agree. In a recent Appellate Division case (M.A. v. A.A.), the mother and father of a young girl originally agreed not to vaccinate their child. Both parents had signed a letter for the child’s school citing the religious exemption. After the parents divorced, however, the father took a different stance on vaccines. He took the child to receive certain vaccines without her mother’s consent. The matter ended up in court with mother asking the court to stop father from taking the child for any more vaccinations. Father responded by asking for the right to make all medical decisions for the child.
The court’s ultimate decision
A trial was scheduled and both parents had medical experts testify. The court decided that the exemption under the statute did not apply because it was not a question of permitting the child to attend school. Instead, the court determined the best interests of the child had to be the basis for its decision. Although the medical experts disagreed about whether the child was at risk of a negative reaction to vaccines, they both agree vaccines, in general, are important to protect against some serious diseases. The court took this into consideration, along with the fact that the child had not had an adverse reaction to the vaccines she already received. Ultimately, the court gave father sole authority to make medical decisions for the child.
As with most cases in family law, the result of this decision was specifically based on the facts of the situation. A small change in the facts could have resulted in a completely different decision. With such important and sensitive topics, it is important to have experienced and knowledgeable counsel to offer advice and present your case to the court.