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Parents Sue Santa Barbara County, State Health Officials Over New Vaccination Law

A group of parents filed a lawsuit against Santa Barbara County Public Health officials, and the state education and health departments over a new state law barring personal-belief exemptions for vaccinating children.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego, 17 parents and four nonprofit organizations representing parents who say they were impacted by SB 277 are suing Santa Barbara County Public Health director Dr. Takashi Wada, Public Health officer Dr. Charity Dean, the state Department of Education, its superintendent Tom Torlakson, the state Board of Education, the state Department of Public Health and its director Dr. Karen Smith.

The plaintiff organizations, which claim in the lawsuit to have thousands of California members, are the E4A Foundation, Weston A. Price Foundation, Citizens for Health and the Alliance for Natural Health.

Two of the plaintiff parents, Melanie Sunukjian and Douglas Mackenzie, have schoolchildren in Santa Barbara, one of whom with the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

In January, the SBUSD sent out a letter to parents who have a waiver on file or with kids entering kindergarten, transitional kindergarten and seventh grade informing them of SB 277, district spokeswoman Barbara Keyani told Noozhawk.

Following a 2014 measles outbreak that started at Disneyland, state legislators passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 277, which mandates that all children receive the required vaccines before starting kindergarten or advancing to seventh grade.

Though valid medical exemptions are allowed, personal-belief and religious-belief exemptions are no longer permitted.

“As a result of the enactment of Senate Bill 277, the State of California denies tens of thousands of children access to its schools and day cares and relegates them to the separate-and-unequal position of learning in isolation, in permanent quarantine,” the plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit.

“Parents have the right to direct the upbringing of their children in accordance with their deeply-held convictions and their religious beliefs,” the plaintiffs wrote.

County Public Health Department spokeswoman Susan Klein-Rothschild said the department has been doing its best to implement a law that was “passed to protect children’s health,” but was unable to comment further on the ongoing lawsuit.

“Vaccines have been one of the best ways to protect children from disease,” she said.

Signed into law in June 2015, SB 277 went into effect July 1, making California the third state behind West Virginia and Mississippi to prohibit personal-belief exemptions.

The lawsuit was filed two weeks later.

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown wrote after signing the bill.

“While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

According to a study done by the California Department of Public Health, 92.9 percent of children in the state received all their required vaccines for the 2015-16 school year, up 2.5 percent from 2014.

The parents of 2.4 percent of children entering kindergarten had personal-belief exemptions, the study found.

Shots for School, a website that collects data on school vaccination and personal-belief exemption rates, recorded 13 child-care schools and preschools in the Santa Barbara and Goleta area that are categorized as most vulnerable due to relatively low vaccine rates among its children, which the site defined as below 80 percent having been fully vaccinated.

Based on their data, another 15 child-care schools and preschools were considered safest, where the fully-vaccinated rate was 95 percent or higher.

Sixteen kindergarten schools in the South Coast area were labeled safest, while five were listed as most vulnerable.

Eleven of the 15 seventh-grade schools in that same area, Shots for School’s data found, were considered safest.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to find SB 277 unconstitutional, in regard to both state and federal laws, and to place an injunction against the law’s enforcement.

Among other claims, the lawsuit alleges that Wada, Dean, and the other defendants are singling out the plaintiffs' children for unequal treatment and depriving the parents of the rights to free exercise of religion, to control their children’s upbringing and, for their children, to education.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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