Private and religious schools in Maryland will no longer be required to admit unvaccinated students as a result of a new interpretation of a state law granting religious exemptions on such occasions.
In a letter dated Aug. 7 from the attorney general’s office to state Dels. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), Sandra Brantley explained how the original state law allowed both public and private institutions to grant religious exemptions beginning in 1969, but was vague in saying whether the latter were required to admit students with this need.
“It is our view that the General Assembly did not intend to force a private school to admit a student with a religious exemption,” she wrote. “Rather, the more reasonable interpretation is that the General Assembly’s purpose in enacting the legislation was to authorize DHMH (Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) to allow parents to assert a religious objection to vaccines, thus, exempting their children from any state required vaccinations.”
Brantley cited the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as a factor in her decision, writing that granting an exemption on religious grounds at an institution of a different faith could cause a conflict. In an interview with the Jewish Times, Brantley said previous policies set by the Maryland State Department of Education and DHMH did require private schools to accept unvaccinated students.
“That’s what they thought the law required,” she said.
Brantley said that because the legal advice she gave to Rosenberg and Hettleman is a current interpretation, it may be treated as law.
The impetus for the letter came from concerns raised by Orthodox Jewish Day schools in Baltimore.
“This is a very important health issue for the students, parents, teachers and administrators in our schools,” said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin with Agudath Israel of Maryland’s Mid-Atlantic Region.
Attorney Hillel Tendler, representing the religious school principals, came at the issue from the constitutional perspective.
“If the state were to require nonpublic religious schools to accept the religious exemption claimed by a parent of a child who is not vaccinated, the state would be requiring the religious school to go against its own religious convictions,” he said. “A parent’s religiously based anti-vaccination views should not be forced on a non-public religious school which does not share those beliefs.”
When Sadwin and other reached out to their legislators, Rosenberg said he and Hettleman decided that the most expedient approach to dealing with the issue would be to go to the attorney general’s office as opposed to attempting to pass a new law clarifying the meaning of an old one.
“You’re making a legal argument, it’s not a political argument,” Rosenberg said. “I think this is an important issue to the parochial school community and you don’t always have to put a bill in to solve a problem.”
Rosenberg said that while the letter will serve as law, it could still be challenged were someone to take the issue to court.
Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, the executive director of Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, said all students there are required to be immunized, arguing that as a public health issue it outweighs everything else. He compared vaccination requirements to a dress code.
“It’s up to each private school to determine what criteria to require of each student,” he said. “We want to apply the state’s vaccination requirements as a public health issue.”
Cohen said an outbreak of measles within the past year and other health epidemics have brought vaccinations to the forefront of his mind, prompting him and others to speak up.
“The overall concern for ours and should be for anybody is the safety of the children,” he said.
Some schools, like Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, have had a longstanding policy of required vaccinations. Director of Education Zipora Schorr said this has been in place for at least 20 years, calling it a “moral imperative.”
“Our moral obligation is to protect the health and well-being of our children,” she said. “Admitting children without immunization is putting in danger the safety of our children.”
Schorr added that there are three children that are cancer survivors at Beth Tfiloh who have compromised immune systems, making a clean environment vital to them.
She said that while she cannot speak for every religious school, she has reached out to other principals and they are “in synch” on the subject of vaccinations.
Schorr said that while Beth Tfiloh has taken a strong stand on vaccinations for more than two decades, having the added protection of the law carries more weight.
“It validates what we’ve been doing and for those people that object and have tried to coerce us or strong-arm us into changing the attorney general’s position has given the school a very strong stance,” she said.