Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In Unusual Church Autonomy Dispute, Catholic School Can Require Immunization of All Students

In a case with an unusual twist, a Florida state appeals court yesterday upheld the policy of a Catholic school requiring immunization of all students, even when a parent has religious objections to immunization.  In Flynn v. Estevez, (FL App., June 27, 2017), the appeals court held that under the church autonomy doctrine, a civil court cannot require a religious school to comply with the provision in Florida law that allows parents to object on religious grounds to immunization of their children. It said in part:
...[T]he application of the statutory exemption to the Diocese is problematic due to the intramural ecclesiastical kerfuffle that underlies this dispute. The Diocese has a religiously-based immunization policy with which one of its members disagrees; Mr. Flynn seeks the power of the State to compel the Diocese to depart from its point-of-view and admit his non-immunized son. But doing so would further his own religious views at the expense of the Diocese’s on the topic of immunizations. We are convinced that a secular court should not be making the judgment as to which side’s religious view of immunization is to be respected.... Unlike other church autonomy cases, the unique feature of this one is that both parties assert Catholic religious doctrine as the basis for their litigation positions, which cautions against a secular court wading into the squabble.... 
Mr. Flynn claims the Diocese’s vaccination policy must be actually rooted in a specific religion doctrine, tenet, or text, and that its “general concern about the ‘common good’” is a religiously ineffectual basis for invoking the abstention doctrine. Though the trial court wasn’t presented with the specific religious basis for the Diocese’s new policy, we find no fault in its conclusion that “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.” Courts are in no more of a position to compel the Diocese to provide a sufficient quantum of passable proof that its view of immunization is consistent with the Catholic faith than to do so as to Mr. Flynn’s personal views of Catholic doctrine on the very same subject.
News Service of Florida reports on the decision.