Catholic sues Catholicism, loses
July 4, 2017 11:40 PM   Subscribe

Patrick Flynn, a Catholic, sued his children's Catholic school (Holy Spirit St. Augustine) when they demanded his children get vaccinated to attend; Flynn objected on religious grounds, and sued. The diocese defended on religious grounds, claiming vaccines promote the common good and are theologically required. (Others without ecclesiastical authority disagreed.) Neither the trial nor the appellate court wanted in on any of it (declaring it a theological matter rather than a legal one), leaving the ruling that private schools in Florida can deny religious vaccine exemptions (which public schools cannot). posted by Eyebrows McGee (41 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
With the Colorado gay marriage wedding cake case coming before SCOTUS, we're about to get something major happening in this country when it comes to religious exemptions/privilege.
posted by hippybear at 11:45 PM on July 4, 2017 [7 favorites]


It's a fascinating case because he basically wanted Florida to enforce a state-created religious exemption against his religious faith, who disagreed with his interpretation of their shared theology.

It's fascinating that he appealed to the state to protect his religious beliefs from the legitimate authorities in his religion; it's fascinating that he took a theological dispute to secular court; it's fascinating that a law intended to let religious parents opt out of public school requirements is being used to create more stringent admissions criteria at private schools. I can't imagine Florida legislators intended that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:58 PM on July 4, 2017 [120 favorites]


That's exactly what is so mind-bending about this. It's the law being applied entirely correctly but what feels intuitively like it goes entirely against what the law was intended to do when it was passed.

I actually sort of applaud the court, not on behalf of enforcing vaccination (which I support but which I feel is secondary to how I feel about this) but for taking the law and applying it equally to all sides. They aren't looking for a background to the law to try to find a reason to make it mean a thing; they're looking at the law and applying it.
posted by hippybear at 12:04 AM on July 5, 2017 [9 favorites]


Public school is one area where I think the bar you should have to clear to keep kids out of school should be incredibly high. To impose a different rule on private schools seems completely internally consistent--public services should be available regardless of religious belief, but church services don't have that obligation in any other respect. Church-run schools are allowed to discriminate based on religion; this law isn't the thing letting them do that, it was just already true and continues to be so. That means that your Catholic school has the ability to tell you that no, sorry, you're doing being our kind of Catholic wrong--but the local public schools don't get to make that sort of call.
posted by Sequence at 12:34 AM on July 5, 2017 [16 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: " I can't imagine Florida legislators intended that."

It's hard to imagine what the legislator's intent was when they passed the exemption law. Are they
  • Anti-Vaxxers?
  • Rabid defenders of the 1st amendment?
  • Small government, anti any regulation types?
  • Anti-public schools and/or pro-vouchers?
  • End of timers wanting to enhance the reach of the White horse?
  • Personal grudge against public health?
  • Holding a massive flame for Jenny McCarthy?
  • Pro-religion (though of the major religions only the Dutch Reformed Church is universally anti-vax) though it's nice to know legislators are going to bat for fringe religions like the Congregation of Universal Wisdom; you rarely see that sort of support from Protestant America.
Or maybe some combination. The law really makes no sense even from a jaded political view. It's like if Florida had passed a law allowing people to toss raw sewage from chamber pots into the street as long as the tossers expressed a religious belief in writing supporting their tossing.
posted by Mitheral at 12:43 AM on July 5, 2017 [23 favorites]


Can anyone with more knowledge than me explain how bullshit this "aborted fetuses vaccine" thing is? It sounds like something obviously made up, but there's also HeLa, so I really don't know, and I feel like googling "vaccines aborted fetuses" is just not going to bring me anywhere good or useful.
posted by corb at 12:57 AM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


The diocese defended on religious grounds, claiming vaccines ... are theologically required.

Actually, that's not entirely true.
If you look at the statement, what they really say is that there is no Catholic dogma against it. In other words, Catholic dogma has nothing specifically on vaccinations.
They then go to elaborate that they think that vaccinations are a good idea because less people will be sick, so THAT's the reason why they make it mandatory.

If you want to spin that into "religious grounds", you could also argue that the Catholic church is against, say, jaywalking or littering due to religious grounds.

In short, you can chose to vaccinate your children or not, and still be a good Catholic and go to heaven.
posted by sour cream at 12:58 AM on July 5, 2017 [6 favorites]


corb: Some vaccines are cultivated using cell lines descended from cells taken from two fetuses aborted in the 1960s (source).
posted by bettafish at 1:43 AM on July 5, 2017 [13 favorites]


Mithral, I think you forgot the best reason. Bodily autonomy and the right to only voluntary medical treatment. I don't believe you need an organized religion to have the right to such a thing.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:55 AM on July 5, 2017


Public school is one area where I think the bar you should have to clear to keep kids out of school should be incredibly high.

I agree, but as the parent of three kids in public school, "you are voluntarily making a epidemic more likely" passes that bar for me. One of the very few reasons to deny someone public accommodations is that they pose a significant risk to the others there. I would like my own children to continue enjoying their measles-free lifestyle.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:11 AM on July 5, 2017 [62 favorites]


psycho-alchemy: "I don't believe you need an organized religion to have the right to such a thing."

But the law only applies if one claims a religious exemption, personal belief is specifically not sufficient reason.
posted by Mitheral at 2:25 AM on July 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


Some vaccines are cultivated using cell lines descended from cells taken from two fetuses aborted in the 1960s

In case that's as far as someone making vaccination decisions reads, the linked article says the Church wants you to get your kids vaccinated to protect them and others from harm, and if that means using a vaccine developed from those cell lines, get the vaccinations done.
posted by pracowity at 2:58 AM on July 5, 2017 [8 favorites]


Ascribing any kind of strategic thinking to Florida legislators that would be more complex than satisfying some immediate desire or political goal is, at best, a charitable mischaracterization.
posted by at by at 2:59 AM on July 5, 2017 [29 favorites]


I agree, but as the parent of three kids in public school, "you are voluntarily making a epidemic more likely" passes that bar for me.

I'm primarily worried by the idea that there might be some zone where some parental decision could be dangerous enough to force kids out of public schools--but not so dangerous as to constitute neglect or abuse on the part of the parents. The "you" who is "voluntarily" doing the thing is a grown adult who should know better, not the kid; the parents should be bearing the consequences. If the public health consequences are that severe, the vaccinations should be compulsory without regard to religion, to my way of thinking, rather than denying any child access to free public education.
posted by Sequence at 4:40 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


The school should sue him back for being a tinfoil hatter.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:01 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wonder, if Patrick Flynn moved his kids to public school, if another parent could sue the public school to deny the exemption because the authorities of his religion say it's actually not part of his religion.
posted by fleacircus at 5:02 AM on July 5, 2017 [21 favorites]


I wonder, if Patrick Flynn moved his kids to public school, if another parent could sue the public school to deny the exemption because the authorities of his religion say it's actually not part of his religion.
That just seems like super dangerous territory. Do we want the courts determining that the dictates of religious authorities trump personal beliefs when it comes to matters of religion? That's not a given: that's an interpretation of how religion works that is contested in most religions. I think it violates the separation of church and state for courts to rule on theological matters, including questions of religious authority.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:09 AM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


One aspect of belonging to an episcopal religion is that your religious decisions are made from above; whatever Mr. Flynn's personal beliefs are, his religious tenets are, by definition, defined by the church hierarchy. I'd argue that the Bishop has closed the door on any Catholic within the diocese from claiming a religious exemption on vaccinations. Mr. Flynn can, of course, leave the church for a denomination that agrees with his stance and try again.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:23 AM on July 5, 2017 [23 favorites]


" if another parent could sue the public school to deny the exemption because the authorities of his religion say it's actually not part of his religion."

No; the courts in the US decline to adjudicate theological disputes, even when there's a clear religious authority. That was part of their decision in this case (that they weren't competent to rule on the theological merits of the father's case and have no authority to do so), and cases like you suggest have come up in similar situations where someone is sued for practicing their religion "wrong." If you can manage to find a lawyer to file it, it'd still get dismissed pretty fast.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:31 AM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


i don't know why they needed an explicit loophole to exclude Flynn's children from their private school. why not just do whatever it is private schools do in Florida to keep themselves effectively whites-only while maintaining plausible deniability of racial discrimination?
posted by indubitable at 5:36 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


That may be true from a religious and theological perspective, but it doesn't really address the legal and constitutional concerns. Sure, the existence of an episcopal hierarchy may mean that the courts don't have to decide what constitutes legitimate religious belief, but now they do have to decide what constitutes legitimate exercise of episcopal authority, which history shows is an equally thorny religious question.
posted by firechicago at 5:36 AM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


Honestly, if you object to a rigid and entrenched hierarchical structure asserting its authority over aspects of your family's lives and education, maybe Catholicism isn't for you.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:54 AM on July 5, 2017 [43 favorites]


Sure, the existence of an episcopal hierarchy may mean that the courts don't have to decide what constitutes legitimate religious belief,....

I am pretty sure that regardless of the particular religion's hierarchy or lack thereof, the U.S. courts as a rule do not take it upon themselves to determine the legitimacy of a religious belief except insofar as the party can demonstrate it is one they adhere to and have not simply invented for purposes of the complaint; the belief's religious validity and veracity are taken as given, being wholly outside the court's jurisdiction. Likewise therefore the courts aren't in the business of determining the legitimacy of episcopal authority.
posted by solotoro at 6:14 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


Last year California passed SB 277 which now requires children get vaccinated unless there's a medical reason. No religious or personal belief exemptions. It's working: more kids are getting vaccinated. I imagine in a couple of years we'll have solid data on how many children's lives are saved. Either that, or maybe the angry sky giant will sweep California away as punishment for our wicked deeds. Let's find out!
posted by Nelson at 6:30 AM on July 5, 2017 [40 favorites]


Am lawyer, can confirm that US courts run screaming from any litigation issue entailing theological disputes, due to legitimate concerns over separation of church and state
posted by radicalawyer at 6:34 AM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


If the public health consequences are that severe, the vaccinations should be compulsory without regard to religion, to my way of thinking, rather than denying any child access to free public education.

And they are. Take a look at what's happening in Minnesota.

The Somali/Somali-American community's concerns and questions about autism led disgraced fraud Andrew Wakefield to visit and encourage people not to vaccinate. In a little over 10 years, the community's MMR vaccination rate went from 92 percent to 42 percent.

So what happened? Measles outbreak. Measles is dangerous; at worst, it can kill people, and at best, it's extremely uncomfortable. There's no treatment for it. And it's EXTREMELY contagious. Right now there are more cases of measles in Minnesota than there were in the whole United States in 2016.
posted by entropone at 7:05 AM on July 5, 2017 [25 favorites]


Likewise therefore the courts aren't in the business of determining the legitimacy of episcopal authority.

Sorry I wasn't clear, this is exactly the point I was making: US courts have categorically refused to get involved in tricky theological questions, and "what constitutes legitimate episcopal authority" is as tricky and theological as questions get. So saying "the Bishop has closed the door on any Catholic within the diocese from claiming a religious exemption on vaccinations" may be correct as a religious matter, but it's very much not true as a legal one.
posted by firechicago at 7:21 AM on July 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


Oh, I've been waiting for a while now for Christian conservatives to finally tumble to the fact that, for these religious exemption laws to function at all, the U.S. Government is going to have to define what is and is not proper Christian doctrine.

I've got my popcorn ready and everything.
posted by Naberius at 8:07 AM on July 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


for these religious exemption laws to function at all

Depends if you think these exemption laws are good faith, or if the whole point is just to fatally wound the law.
posted by wotsac at 8:18 AM on July 5, 2017 [7 favorites]


Regardless of what their parents believe, it has to be vaccine or quarantine for all children. Unvaccinated kids are a real hazard to real people. Me, for instance.
posted by pracowity at 8:22 AM on July 5, 2017 [13 favorites]


It doesn't seem very confusing to me. Private religious schools have always been able to discriminate on the basis of religion. So either you believe in the tenets of the religion (in which case you obey the church's ruling that vaccines are required by their theology) or you aren't actually a believer in their view, and they can kick you out.
posted by tavella at 9:17 AM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


Ascribing any kind of strategic thinking to Florida legislators that would be more complex than satisfying some immediate desire or political goal is, at best, a charitable mischaracterization.

Like the man says (YouTube link: Sex House episode 7, Onion Digital Studios, 6 seconds starting at 5m21s)
posted by flabdablet at 10:30 AM on July 5, 2017


A Stanford pediatrician told me that they are seeing diseases like whooping cough pop up even in the vaccinated population, because the unvaccinated kids are a petri dish that brews up new strains that the vaccine may not be as effective against.
posted by w0mbat at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2017 [15 favorites]


A Stanford pediatrician told me that they are seeing diseases like whooping cough pop up even in the vaccinated population, because the unvaccinated kids are a petri dish that brews up new strains that the vaccine may not be as effective against.

Jesus wept.

I've said it once and I'll say it again, we will end up getting what we deserve and it's not going to be pretty. Political and theological theory-crafting and navel gazing aside, fuck these people that aren't vaccinating.

Fuck them.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:09 PM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


If SCOTUS decides to grant all kinds of freedoms to people expressing "sincerely held religious beliefs" (as in Hobby Lobby), I am wondering whether Quaker tax resistance will make a comeback. There is a clear, historically grounded belief in Quakerism that war is wrong, and that paying taxes that support war/violence is wrong. I'm curious as to how any evolving rulings will handle this - maybe tax resistance will make a comeback.
posted by cushie at 1:13 PM on July 5, 2017 [7 favorites]


This keeps up, I'm going to join the Satanic Temple, and start exercising my own religious beliefs in favor of some useful things.
posted by XtinaS at 1:22 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


psycho-alchemy Bodily autonomy and the right to only voluntary medical treatment.

Two points:

First, and least important, I doubt very much that the Florida Republicans who wrote the law in question care even slightly about bodily autonomy and the right to only voluntary medical treatment given that they constantly work to abolish the right to abortion and have passed laws mandating transvaginal ultrasounds for all abortions. Clearly bodily autonomy and the right to only voluntary medical treatment is not a priority with those people.

But more important, we're talking about children here, often infants. The usual questions of medical consent don't really arise since as a society we've judged (correctly I'd argue) that children aren't legally able to consent or withdraw consent from medical decisions.

And this brings us into the idea of parental rights, a concept I don't really think is all that valid and I'd like to see removed from US law.

The question should not be "what is the belief of the parent about medical procedure X" but rather "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to medical procedure X". Being a parent shouldn't include the right to condemn your child to a miserable death by preventable disease. Children are not property, they are people. People who aren't really able to make their own decisions, but people nevertheless, and a parent's screwball medical beliefs should not hold sway of life and death over anyone but themselves.

I'd argue that the proper solution to the whole miserable situation is to tell parents to STFU and mandate vaccination for all children (barring legitimate medical exceptions) regardless of parental beliefs. It is mind boggling to me that in the USA we legally permit parents to opt out of vaccines for their children.

"My child" is not the same as "my car".
posted by sotonohito at 1:28 PM on July 5, 2017 [10 favorites]


cushie on non-preview: I don't have high hopes here. I'd argue that ever since the Hatch Amendment became a thing and tax money was barred from paying for abortions we've been in a situation where the religious beliefs of some were held to be superior, or more significant, than the religious beliefs of others.

People who claim that their religious beliefs make their tax dollars special and forever barred from paying for abortion are held up above everyone else, their religious beliefs are encoded into law.

Meanwhile my sincerely held philosophic belief that my tax money shouldn't support for profit corporations, or war, or any number of other things is pushed into the gutter and spat on while the beliefs of certain Christians are exalted.

But strangely (yeah, right, on a Court packed with arch conservative Catholic theocrats), the Supreme Court seems totally fine with that sort of religious discrimination.
posted by sotonohito at 1:33 PM on July 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


We in the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Dudes interpret "fasting" to mean "driving really fast." Pedal to the Saint Christopher medal.

Sorry, all you Slow Pokes for Satan, but speed limits are against my religion. Yes, this may pose a smidgen more risk to you and yours, but Jesus is my airbag and crumple zone.
posted by pracowity at 1:42 PM on July 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


The question should not be "what is the belief of the parent about medical procedure X" but rather "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to medical procedure X". Being a parent shouldn't include the right to condemn your child to a miserable death by preventable disease. Children are not property, they are people. People who aren't really able to make their own decisions, but people nevertheless, and a parent's screwball medical beliefs should not hold sway of life and death over anyone but themselves.

Playing devil's advocate here, but change "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to medical procedure X" to "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to X". Where do you draw the line on where the state should make the decisions and where the parents should? I'd argue that's a legit question that should be asked when you start asking that type of question.

Now, that being said, I believe vaccines should be required, and that schools, including public schools should be allowed to not admit a student that doesn't have the vaccines as a public health threat. Sorry folks, the science doesn't support your moral or religious objections and in fact points out that you're the biggest threat with them. (Obviously, if there's a true medical reason for not having the vaccine, that's another story, but I'm guessing that situation is relatively rare). (And this comes from someone that quite frankly leans far more politically right than 99% of the people on mefi. These diseases were all but eliminated in the developed world until various idiots decided that it was better their way. And for all those that always say that the EU it better on things like this, the recent ruling there about not even needing to scientifically prove a link between a vaccine and supposed side effects is just pure idiocy.)
posted by piper28 at 1:18 PM on July 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


Playing devil's advocate here, but change "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to medical procedure X" to "what is in the best interest of the child with regards to X". Where do you draw the line on where the state should make the decisions and where the parents should? I'd argue that's a legit question that should be asked when you start asking that type of question.

It's a 100% valid question, and the only reason I didn't phrase it in the more general sense was because we were talking specifically about vaccination and I didn't want to derail too much. But seeing as the thread is pretty much dead.......

I think "what is in the best interests of the child with regards to X" is the proper question most of the time. As I said above, I don't really think our framing of things as "parental rights" is the proper framing.

Children aren't mature enough to make their own decisions yet, parents have a responsibility to the child. Parents censor what media their child consumes and pretty much everyone agrees that (up to a certain age anyway) a parent who doesn't is remiss in their duty.

I'll agree that framing it as "best interests of the child" rather than "parental rights" opens a can of worms, but I'd argue that we've already done that we just haven't admitted it.

Even in the US where the parental rights view dominates, both socially and legally, the law does prohibit parents from doing certain things judged not to be in the best interests of the child. We have child abuse laws for exactly that reason: to limit what a parent can do based on the best interests of the child. We have mandatory schooling laws for that reason. We have in some states anyway laws prohibiting parents from allowing their children to see movies with a certain rating in the theaters [1].

So clearly parental rights aren't all encompassing and the state already makes judgments about what is and is not in the best interests of the child.

[1] Which does bring up an interesting side issue in that movie ratings come from a non-governmental agency that is pretty arbitrary and has secret, shifting, standards for assigning ratings.
posted by sotonohito at 9:37 AM on July 7, 2017


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