WATERLOO — An Amish father who says childhood vaccines run counter to his family’s religious beliefs is suing to overturn New York’s ban on religious exemptions that let unvaccinated children attend school.
Jonas Stoltzfus’ lawsuit contends the law violates the constitutional right of religious freedom that first drew Amish settlers to New York in the 1800s. More than 12,000 Amish now live in the state, according to the lawsuit.
“They don’t believe in vaccines. They believe if you get sick, God gives you your immune system to heal whatever sickness you have … and this is the way they’ve believed all their lives,” Stoltzfus’ attorney James Mermigis said by phone Monday.
New York in June became the fifth state to do away with religious exemptions for vaccines amid the worst measles outbreak in 27 years. That left more than 26,000 students who had the exemptions, including numerous Amish students who attend small private community schools, with the choice to either receive the shots or be homeschooled.
Stoltzfus said he was notified that his 8-, 10- and 12-year-old children would be “banished” from the 24-student Cranberry Marsh School in Romulus unless they were immunized.
The suit filed last month in Seneca County Court is one of at least a dozen lawsuits pending throughout the state seeking to restore the religious exemption for school children, Mermigis said. So far, judges have refused to block the law.
Mermigis is scheduled to argue for a stay Oct. 29.
“A religious right was taken away without debate, without hearings, without anything, and it’s a dangerous slope right now for New York state, for these types of things to be occurring,” the Long Island attorney said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill minutes after it was passed by the state Legislature June 13. The law took effect immediately but gave unvaccinated students 14 days from the start of school to receive the first doses of each required immunization.
A state Health Department spokeswoman said she could not comment on ongoing litigation, but stood by the stricter requirements.
“Immunizations give children the best protection from serious childhood diseases, and the science is crystal clear that vaccines are safe and effective,” spokeswoman Jill Montag wrote in a statement.
Mermigis said the Amish lead secluded lives and the law threatens the existence of community schools like Cranberry Marsh, where virtually all of the students and staff are Amish and unvaccinated.