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On The Front Lines

Victory: South Carolina Amends Religious Exemption Certificate to Accommodate First Amendment Concerns After Rutherford Intervenes

INDIAN LAND, S.C. — Following The Rutherford Institute’s petition on behalf of a kindergartner whom school officials threatened to exclude from school because she had not received certain vaccinations, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has swiftly adopted a new Certificate of Religious Exemption in an effort to conform to First Amendment requirements. While the old certificate required parents to sign a statement that they are members of a “recognized religious denomination in which the tenets and practices of the denomination conflict with immunizations,” the new form only requires a statement that the immunizations conflict with the parent’s religious beliefs.

“We are extremely pleased that the South Carolina Department of Health was so quick to recognize the need for a better vaccination exemption policy that comports with the First Amendment,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Countless parents have conscientious objections to immunizations and vaccinations, and government agencies are showing proper respect for First Amendment principles when they provide appropriate flexibility to vaccination mandates.”

The mother of a kindergarten student contacted The Rutherford Institute after being informed by school officials that her daughter would not be permitted to continue attending school if she did not receive the varicella (chicken pox) vaccination within 30 days.  Laura, the parent, felt that she could not, in good conscience, sign the old Exemption Certificate, because she is not a member of a religious denomination whose tenets conflict with immunization. Rutherford Institute attorneys informed South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) of the patent unconstitutionality of an exemption system that is limited to members of “recognized” religious denominations. Acknowledging the flaws in its policy, the agency took immediate steps to put a new Certificate of Religious Exemption in place that would better conform to First Amendment requirements. According to Institute attorneys, the regulation governing exemptions from mandatory vaccinations is still in dire need of correction.  However, DHEC’s swift actions have achieved a temporary solution that provides an effective remedy for Laura and other parents in her situation. Affiliate attorney Hank Hamilton assisted The Rutherford Institute in ensuring that Laura’s beliefs were accommodated.

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