TALLAHASSEE — The Florida First District Court of Appeal has upheld a trial court’s decision that the matter of whether to admit an unvaccinated child into a Catholic school is the church's decision, not the court's.
According to the appellate court's June 27 decision, Patrick Flynn, a father of eight, filed suit on behalf of his son after he was denied admission for the 2015-16 school year at Holy Spirit School because he was not vaccinated. Flynn claimed the policy violated his statutory right to exempt his child from compulsory immunizations. The Diocese moved to dismiss Flynn’s claims based on its tenet that all children to be enrolled in its schools must be properly immunized for the common good, adding that the requirement is a religious tenet and practice.
Flynn disagreed with the Diocese’s common-good view, asserting at trial that vaccinating his children would be against his relationship with God. The trial court dismissed Flynn’s claims, emphasizing that civil courts may not insert themselves into the practice of the church to compel it to exempt a student on religious grounds from mandatory immunization or to admit an unimmunized student to the school.
The trial court also found no irreparable injury for the future, explaining that Flynn could either attend a public school where he could exercise his right not to immunize or attend another private school that would permit the mandatory immunization exemption. The trial court found that public interest, the Diocese’s “common good” belief, would be served if more, rather than fewer, school children were immunized.
As a private school under Florida’s education statutes, Holy Spirit must comply with laws mandating that students be immunized against communicable diseases. The judges agreed that the issue of immunization is simultaneously a secular and scientific one, but the matter of immunizations of children attending Catholic schools is an issue of faith, discipline and Catholicism that can only properly be determined by the church and not by the civil courts.
“Refereeing a religious dispute about student immunization between a Catholic diocese and one of its parishioners requires deciding which religious view should prevail and is a function from which secular court should abstain,” the appeals court said in its ruling.