A student at a Catholic school in Kentucky has sued the Northern Kentucky Health Department, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights by barring him from playing basketball because he refused to be vaccinated against chickenpox.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Boone County Circuit Court on behalf of the student, Jerome Kunkel, an 18-year-old senior, argues that the action violates his right to freedom of religion. Being vaccinated, it contends, would go against Mr. Kunkel’s religious beliefs as a practicing Catholic, because the vaccine contains “aborted fetal cells.”
The lawsuit came after an outbreak of chickenpox at Assumption Academy in Walton, Ky., prompted officials to send out two warnings in February.
On March 14, the Health Department issued a statement saying that because there had been 32 cases of chickenpox at the school, students who were not vaccinated or already immune could not attend school “until 21 days after the onset of rash for the last ill student or staff member.” The statement also said all school extracurricular events would be canceled.
Mr. Kunkel’s lawyer, Chris Wiest, said in an interview on Monday that the school had told him in February that he could not play in or attend any basketball games because he was not vaccinated.
Mr. Kunkel is also now barred from attending school because of the Health Department’s action.
“I’m pretty devastated,” Mr. Kunkel, who was captain of the basketball team, said in an interview on Monday night. After playing for all four years of high school, “for it come crashing down at the end, it’s not very fun,” he added. Mr. Kunkel was not able to play in the last three games of the season.
The lawsuit contends that in Kentucky, students are allowed a vaccination exemption on religious grounds if they provide a sworn statement, which Mr. Kunkel did in early 2018.
It is unclear how many students have been barred from attending the school because they have not been vaccinated or were found to be immune. Mr. Wiest, however, said that the parents of at least 18 children at the school had contacted him since the Health Department’s announcement.
“I think this is going to be a much bigger fight at the end of the day,” Mr. Wiest said.
Officials at the school did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. But the Health Department defended its response to the outbreak.
The action, the department said in its statement, was “in direct response to a public health threat and was an appropriate and necessary response to prevent further spread of this contagious illness.” A spokesman for the department declined to comment further.