Prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case.
Photo: Hans Pennink (AP)

A New York State Supreme Court Justice on Friday rejected a suit brought by 55 families attempting to block the state’s recently passed law “eliminating exemptions to school vaccination requirements on the basis of religious beliefs,” Ars Technica reported.

New York is the state hardest hit this year by outbreaks of measles, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 but has seen a resurgence in the past few years. As of July 3, 2019, the CDC counted roughly 1,109 individual cases of measles throughout the U.S., the most since the year 1992. Two major outbreaks have been reported in NYC (620 confirmed cases as of July 8) and Rockland County (280 cases as of July 11).

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As to why? Vaccination rates across the country have dipped, which has been explained as both the result of poverty and lack of access to quality health care and a significant rise in vaccine skepticism—the latter of which is fueled by the anti-vax movement, which has spread like wildfire and spreads scientifically debunked conspiracy theories that vaccines can cause ailments ranging from autism to made-up ones like “vaccine overload.” In New York, reports in the New York Times and BuzzFeed News have pointed to a relatively small but dedicated fringe group of anti-vaxxers with national support that targeted ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods for propaganda fliers and handbooks. (As we’ve noted before, Jewish community groups in the city have strongly opposed this.)

Members of the World Health Organization and researchers across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia recently signed the Salzburg Statement on Vaccination Acceptance, calling for a coordinated, global push to fight anti-vax misinformation. Social media companies, many of whom have attracted immense criticism for their failure to curb antivaccine propaganda, have recently started to do so, but their approach has been inconsistent and such content remains rampant online.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill eliminating religion-based exemptions to vaccination requirements for schoolchildren into law in June, saying in a statement that “The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe. While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

The families filed their case on Wednesday, seeking class action status and arguing that the repeal was unconstitutional, according to Ars Technica. According to the Times Union, their legal team consisted of Michael Sussman and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the latter of whom is a prominent anti-vax spokesman and has been denounced by members of the Kennedy clan. The plaintiffs sought to have a temporary restraining order put into effect barring the law’s implementation until the court case was resolved.

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While the lawsuit will still move forward, the Times Union wrote, the judge in the case ruled that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate they are likely enough to win to warrant the restraining order, citing prior court decisions upholding vaccination requirements:

Albany County Supreme Court Justice Michael Mackey handed down the decision Friday afternoon, noting the request did not meet the burden required to grant such an order. Parties seeking temporary restraining orders against legislation must demonstrate that their claim is likely to succeed.

Mackey reasoned the claim did not meet that burden since other courts have upheld a state’s right to order mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren, Sussman said.

He added that a briefing schedule has been set that will allow attorneys time to demonstrate the merits of their case prior to September.

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“This is the not the decision I had hoped for, but I recognize that getting a (temporary restraining order) against state legislation is very difficult,” Sussman told the Times Union.

As Ars Technica noted, anti-vaxxers have lost similar cases in NYC and Kentucky lately. As the Times noted, city and state health authorities typically have “vast powers” to deal with outbreaks dating to the cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox epidemics of the 1800s, with New York City health commissioner Dr. Cyrus Edson saying in 1892 that he had the authority to “seize City Hall and turn it into a hospital.”

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“Science and public safety have prevailed once again,” State Senator Brad Hoylman, one of the sponsors of the June bill, told the New York Daily News. “I’m pleased that this important law will continue to be implemented and enforced across our State, and remain confident that the law will ultimately be upheld as constitutional, consistent with over a century of federal and state jurisprudence. New Yorkers are safer as a result.”