A Kentucky judge has ruled against an unvaccinated, Catholic high school student who sued his local health department for banning unvaccinated students from school and extracurricular activities amid a chickenpox outbreak.
On April 2, Judge James Schrand of Boone County Court denied the request for a preliminary injunction that would allow the student, 18-year-old Jerome Kunkel, to return to classes and activities at Our Lady of Assumption Academy in Walton, Kentucky.
The outbreak sickened at least 32 in the Assumption’s community and had the potential to spread further. Of Assumption’s 240 students, only 18 percent have received all of their vaccinations, according to the school’s registrar.
In his lawsuit, Kunkel, a senior and “important player” in the boys’ basketball team at the school, said he opposes vaccination on religious grounds and argued in court that the ban violated his Constitutional rights. In an interview with , Kunkel’s father, Bill, called the health department’s actions “ tyranny against our religion, our faith, our country.”
The court disagrees—as does his own religion.
The crux of the Kunkel’s argument against vaccination is that the chickenpox vaccine is “derived from aborted fetal cells,” and the Catholic church generally opposes abortion. There is truth in their objection. Both types of chickenpox vaccines available (brand names Varivax and ProQuad) use a weakened form of the virus that is propagated in a lineage of cells dubbed MRC-5. That cell line was developed from the lung tissue of a 14-week-old fetus, aborted for “psychiatric reasons” in 1966. Both forms of the vaccine may contain “residual components of MRC-5 cells including DNA and protein,” according to manufacturers.
From that, the Kunkels concluded that the vaccine is immoral and should be rejected absolutely. But the Catholic church disagrees, taking a more nuanced stance. In a 2005 statement on the matter, the Vatican noted its ethical objection to the manufacturing methods of such vaccines and encouraged the use of alternatives when possible. But in the end, the church came to the practical judgement that when no alternatives are available, such vaccines are acceptable and necessary to “avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole—especially for pregnant women.” The argument would seem to be further bolstered by the fact the chickenpox can cause severe birth defects and, if it strikes late in a pregnancy, can cause life-threatening infections in newborns.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center spells out the church’s position further, concluding: “There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good.”
When confronted with the church’s stance in an interview with the Bill Kunkel gave a confusing response: “That doesn’t mean nothing to me,” he said. “I follow the laws of the Church, and I know what’s right and wrong.” Kunkel added that abortion is a moral absolute.
Judge Schrand stated in his ruling that Kunkel’s case is not likely to prevail, citing legal precedents for the health department’s actions.
In a statement, the health department responded, writing:
We are pleased with the Court’s careful and thorough review of the evidence and legal issues posed in this case. The Court’s ruling…underscores the critical need for Public Health Departments to preserve the safety of the entire community, and in particular the safety of those members of our community who are most susceptible to the dire consequences when a serious, infectious disease such as varicella, is left unabated and uncontrolled.