Grandparents think Kansas becoming 'religion police,' challenge child immunization policy

A Johnson County couple who are foster parents to their grandson says Kansas is rushing to immunize their grandson over their religious and health concerns. Video by Jill Toyoshiba and Tony Rizzo.
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A Johnson County couple who are foster parents to their grandson says Kansas is rushing to immunize their grandson over their religious and health concerns. Video by Jill Toyoshiba and Tony Rizzo.
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Health Care

Kansas acting as ‘religious police’ in mandating vaccine for grandson, couple argue

By Tony Rizzo

trizzo@kcstar.com

October 08, 2017 07:00 AM

The 2-year-old grandson of Linus and Terri Baker has never been vaccinated.

His mother and the Bakers oppose immunization on religious and health grounds.

But now that the boy is in temporary state custody, the Kansas Department for Children and Families intends to vaccinate him despite the family’s wishes.

The Bakers, who have physical custody of the boy as his foster parents, say it’s an unconstitutional overreach and they are now fighting it in federal court.

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The grandparents are particularly galled that DCF appears to be requiring people who want to exempt their children from daycare and school vaccination requirements to cite their denomination and its specific teaching opposed to immunization.

“They’ve become the religious police,” said Linus Baker, a lawyer who lives in southern Johnson County.

The Bakers are seeking to stop the Kansas Department for Children and Families (commonly called DCF) and its contractor, KVC Behavioral Healthcare, from immunizing their grandson, identified as S.F.M.

Because the boy is in temporary state custody, DCF has the authority to make the immunization decision, even though he is actually living with the Bakers as his foster parents.

Officials with DCF and KVC have notified the family that they intend to immunize the child, even though he is currently enrolled in a private, religious day care after Terri Baker provided a religious exemption statement that both the school and Kansas Department of Health and Environment did not contest.

His custody status is the result of a child in need of care ruling by a Johnson County judge, but the Bakers say that they are working for him to be returned to his mother, their daughter, who like them is opposed to him being vaccinated.

It is a decision that families have long been able to make in Kansas.

The state law provides two exemptions to the school immunization requirement.

One is based on religious beliefs. The other concerns health risks to the child.

But there are two different versions of the language of the religious exemption.

For enrollment in a child care facility, a parent must state: “As the parent or legal guardian, I state that I am an adherent of a religious denomination whose teachings are opposed to immunizations.”

But as in the case of the Bakers’ grandson, if the child is enrolled in a school or school-operated preschool, the parent or guardian must state in writing “that the child is an adherent of a religious denomination whose religious teachings are opposed to such tests or inoculations.”

Asking a 2-year-old if he is an adherent of a religion?

“It’s nonsensical and ridiculous,” Linus Baker said.

To claim the medical exemption, a family must provide an annual written statement signed by a licensed physician stating the physical condition of the child to be such that the tests or inoculations would seriously endanger the life or health of the child.

The forms are kept with the child care provider or school, and the state does not keep track of how many people claim either exemption, according to a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The Bakers contend in their lawsuit that DCF’s taking that decision away from the family “is a fundamental violation of the constitutional rights to liberty and privacy of S.F.M.”

“The cases in which the Supreme Court has recognized the right to control one’s own body, the right to make one’s own medical choices, and the right to control the health issues which arise in the integrity of a family, even though a child is in temporary custody of the state, mandate the conclusion that forced prophylactic vaccination for S.F.M. is a violation of these fundamental rights,” the Bakers said in a court filing.

According to the lawsuit, the Bakers’ grandson was born with a heart condition, which required surgery when he was six months old. He is now very healthy, but they don’t know how different vaccines could affect his health.

Terri Baker has also “long been of the Christian faith,” the suit says.

“Part of that faith is having an understanding about vaccines and the risks they pose for children,” according to the suit. “Terri has religious convictions and objections to vaccines using cell lines from tissue harvested from abortions.”

According to their suit, the Bakers maintain that the religious exemption language is vague, that it imposes an unconstitutional religious test, violates the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, and as Linus Baker said, the wording of the law is just “nonsensical and ridiculous.

“It is impossible for a two year old child to be ‘an adherent of a religious denomination’ if it means being a believer or being an advocate of a religious denomination’s anti-vaccination teaching,” according to the suit. “Even if this two year old could formulate such a belief, how would either of S.F.M.’s parents know this belief or make the statement that S.F.M. is an adherent of a religious denomination whose religious teachings are opposed to such tests or inoculations?”

Even more troubling, according to Linus Baker, is that DCF appears to be requiring people who cite the exemption to provide the name of a denomination and its specific teaching opposed to immunization.

Linus Baker asked what if someone is not part of a specific denomination or they have a personal objection not specified in a particular group’s teachings?

If the law does not apply to everyone equally, then it is unconstitutional, he said.

A recently mailed letter from KVC to their daughter, the child’s mother, gave 14 days for one of the child’s parents to assert one of the exemptions in writing or file a written objection with the court handling the child’s child in need of care case.

Imposing the 14-day deadline is “completely arbitrary,” according to the suit.

“Why 14 days when there is no medical necessity or emergency?” the suit asks.

Plus, the letter was sent to an address where the mother no longer resides. The Bakers also question why someone other than a parent can’t make the exemption statement since “it only concerns S.F.M.’s beliefs.”

Besides DCF, and KVC, its contractor, the suit was filed against the Kansas Department of Health and Environment because it administers the immunization program and would determine whether an exemption statement complies with the law.

A spokeswoman for DCF said the agency had not yet seen the suit and she could not comment.

The bottom line for the Bakers is that their grandson is only in state custody temporarily, while having him vaccinated against their wishes is “permanent and irreversible.”

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc