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An Introduction to Vaccine Exemptions  

Everywhere routine vaccines are mandated in the United States, one or more exemptions are allowed. 

     Everywhere vaccines are mandated, at least some people may be eligible to refuse them legally without penalty. Exceptions to vaccine mandates fall into three basic categories:

1. Medical: Available anywhere vaccines are required, but can be difficult to get. Usually requires a recommendation from a licensed medical doctor. In some situations, authorities can deny medical exemptions even when recommended by a licensed medical doctor. 

2. Religious: Available in most situations where vaccines are required, except for school and daycare in CA, WV, and MS. Procedure varies from state to state or context to context.

3. Personal or Philosophical: Available in about 16 states for daycare and grade school, and in Maine for healthcare workers.

Exemptions may not apply in emergency situations. See the Pandemic Response Project for more information on this.


     No one is required to hire an attorney to exercise a legal right. However, making informed decisions requires having a sufficient understanding of your rights, and there are few short-answer vaccine exemption questions. Vaccine exemption and waiver law is more complicated than most people realize. Many people end up spending a lot of money paying an attorney to try to get them out of a problem that they could have avoided altogether if they had only consulted an attorney ahead of time. 

     The two best ways to make informed decisions on vaccine exemptions and waivers are to consult an experienced attorney, and/or purchase The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions e-book. Beware of Internet advice. Even highly reputable sites, including those of alternative medical doctors and vaccine book authors, provide information about vaccine rights that is usually a mixture of accurate and inaccurate information. Some who have relied on anti-vaccine websites have lost exemption rights unnecessarily. If it doesn't come from an attorney experienced in this area of the law, beware! 

    Attorney Phillips has assisted clients and other attorneys around the country with vaccine exemption and waiver matters.


School Exemptions - Public, Private, Homeschools

     Whether or not state exemption laws apply to private schools and homeschools depends on the specific wording of each state's laws. For example, in 2006, the Texas State Attorney General issued an opinion concluding that Texas law doesn't require private schools to accept religious exemptions unless the school receives state funding (though I question the analysis used). In contrast, North Carolina's religious exemption law does apply to all private schools.

    Don't use a form unless your state requires and provides one. Otherwise, you may not be in compliance with your state's law. Don't copy exemption letters from the Internet--legal precedent says this is "insincere" and a basis for rejecting the exemption.

     Understanding your rights requires a careful reading of applicable statutes, regulations, and legal precedent. Reviewing your states' laws is a good starting point. The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions contains a summary of legal precedent, and information about how and when it applies. This will help you understand where the boundaries of your rights are, under the specific facts and circumstances of your life, and in your particular jurisdiction (geographical location). If you have any doubts, consult a knowledgeable attorney.



Immigration and Foreign Adoption

     The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires immigrants, including children adopted from foreign countries, to be vaccinated. However, this requirement can be waived for objections based on religious beliefs and moral convictions (which really means religious beliefs). This requires form I-601 (I-602 for refugees), Application for Waiver of Ground of Inadmissibility, which has a $930 application fee (no fee for refugees), and an affidavit that must be customized for each applicant. The USCIS generally interviews waiver applicants.

     Working with an experienced attorney is strongly recommended. The USCIS manual requires details not addressed in the regulations. One can follow the letter of the regulations and still be rejected. Knowing what to include and exclude in the application; how to prepare your affidavit, statement of religious beliefs, and other relevant documents; and how to handle the interview can make the difference in whether or not the application is approved.

     Details about what kinds of beliefs qualify and why, and other important considerations are available in The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions.



Military - Members, Families, Schools,
and Civilian Contractors

Article: Navy revises vaccine exemption policy and regs by attorney request - twice!, Natural News, April 26, 2011

     Military regulations offer military members medical and administrative exemptions, the latter of which includes religious exemptions. Religious exemptions are also available to military families, children in military schools, and civilian military contractors. Different regulations and laws may apply to each of these different areas; e.g., military members and schools are governed by Department of Defense reguations, while military contractors' religious objections fall under federal statutes and civilian civil rights regulations.

     For military members, the exemption can be withdrawn if the mission is deemed to require that. Presumably, denial of an exemption application or withdrawal of a previously granted exemption would most likely occur when stationed outside the U.S. or in any location where infectious diseases are considered to pose a high risk--e.g., third-world and war-torn countries.

     Military personnel cannot be vaccinated while a decision on a exemption application is pending.

     There are some branch-specific variations. Strict adherence to the applicable regulations is necessary to ensure that proper procedure is followed and all requirements are properly presented. Care should be take to ensure that your statement of religious beliefs includes appropriate information and details and excludes anything that is not needed or that could undermine your exemption claim. For these reasons, an experienced attorney is recommended. Information about what kinds of beliefs qualify and why, and other details, are provided in The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions.



Uncle Sam Wants YOU!

Vaccine Custody Disputes

     When separated or divorced parents disagree over whether or not to vaccinate their children, most attorneys and judges are likely to view the dispute as a "no brainer"--of course the "best interests of the child"  requires the children to be vaccinated. This stems from a misunderstanding of the fact that an exempt child poses no threat, legally or medically, to himself or the community. Medically, the herd immunity theory supports this assumption. Legally, if the exercise of a legal exemption would cause a significant health risk for anyone, the state legislature would not have enacted the exemption law in the first place. But few family law attorneys or judges get to this part of the analysis, stopping instead at the "best interests" assessment.

     Pro-exemption parents often have strong legal rights that can win in these disputes. But family law attorneys not familiar with the applicable law and legal arguments often pursue a losing strategy. 

     There are potentially several different levels to the legal analysis in these cases. A proper assessment depends on the applicable state and federal law as well as the specific facts in each case. Therefore, consulting an attorney experienced in this arena is highly recommended. Custody cases can be heavily fact-dependant, and vaccine custody disputes are often entangled with other custody matters such as which parent should have health or religious decision-making authority for the children generally.

     The Authoritative Guide to Vaccine Legal Exemptions contains a detailed overview of the various potential components of a complete analysis. Attorney Phillips is also available to work with you and your family law attorney, and has done so successfully with attorneys in several states assisting clients and attorneys in vaccine custody disputes.   



College Students

     Most states require immunizations for college students. Some have separate exemption laws, while others have one set of exemption laws that apply to all schools, including post-secondary schools.

     College students in healthcare curriculums that require them to do clincal work in local hospitals or other healthcare facilities may have a more complicated situation. Those facilities may require vaccines of their employees and students doing clinical work as a matter of institutional policy, and not state law. Where that's the case, state exemption laws may not be helpful.

     There is law in about a dozen states that can help students with religious-based objections (what qualifies is broad, but there are legal pitfalls as well). See the page on healthcare employees for more on this. 


college students


According to this article, AL, CO, CT, FL, ME, MA, NH, NJ, NY, OR,
VT, VA and WI all have medical exemption clauses for sick anminals in their rabies laws. More recently (winter 2012), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) approved a policy change supporting waivers for rabies vaccination where the shot may pose an unacceptably high risk to the health of the individual animal, or where a waiver might be necessary for research purposes.

Unfortunately, pets are generally considered to be property under the law, and so would not be covered under exemption laws for people.

See also this section of the Resource page of the Pandemic Response Project website for more on pets and vaccines.



Emergency Rights

     Exemption rights can change dramatically during a declared emergency. In most states, emergency vaccines can be mandated with only medical exemptions, or even no exemptions at all, once authorities declare a state of emergency. Furthermore, whether exemptions are allowed or not, during a declared emergency, those who are exempt or refuse mandatory vaccines can be quarantined in government facilities against their will in most states. For more on this and what you can do about it, see the Pandemic Response Project.



International Travel

     International travel vaccines are regulated by the World Health Organization's International Health Regulations. The CDC recommends many vaccines, but the only required vaccines are yellow fever, for travelers going in and out of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. Requirements are discussed on the CDC website here (scroll down to "Required Vacciations"), and there is a link to individual country requirements there as well. Note that "recommended" may be something different from "required."


 Alan Phillips, Attorney at, 828-676-2831
© July 2015