A Kentucky teen who refused the chickenpox vaccine is suing after being barred from attending school

WLWTJerome Kunkel and his father, Bill Kunkel
  • A Kentucky student who refused the chicken pox vaccine due to his religious beliefs has sued his local health department after the agency wouldn’t allow him to attend school or participate in extracurricular activities.
  • Since February, Jerome Kunkel’s Catholic school has been dealing with a chicken pox outbreak that has affected more than 30 students.
  • The outbreak caused the Northern Kentucky Health Department to ban unvaccinated students from school, and Kunkel’s lawsuit alleges that the ruling violates Jerome’s First Amendment rights and religious beliefs.
  • In a statement, the Northern Kentucky Health Department said that the agency’s decision to not allow unvaccinated students to attend school “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 Kentucky student who refused the chicken pox vaccine – citing his Christian faith – is suing his local health department after the agency wouldn’t allow him to attend school or participate in extracurricular activities because he isn’t vaccinated.

Jerome Kunkel, an 18-year-old senior at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart/ Assumption Academy in Kentucky, is arguing in his lawsuit that he is being discriminated because of his religious beliefs, according to WLWT. “I don’t believe in that vaccine at all and they are trying to push it on us,” his father, Bill Kunkel, told the station. He added that he believes the chicken pox vaccine is derived from aborted fetuses.

Chicken pox is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus and with symptoms including an itchy, blister-like rash that can spread across the entire body. At worst, chicken pox can lead to serious complications including bacterial infections of the skin, pneumonia, and inflammation of the brain, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. While the disease used to be extremely common in the US, those numbers decreased significantly after the vaccine became available in 1995 – with the mortality rate dropping 94 per cent.

Since February, Jerome’s Catholic school has been dealing with a chicken pox outbreak that has affected more than 30 students – influencing the Northern Kentucky Health Department’s decision to ban unvaccinated students from school, The Washington Post reported. Jermone was particularly distraught after being banned from participating in his school basketball team’s playoff game.

“The fact that I can’t finish my senior year in basketball, like, our last couple of games, it’s pretty devastating,” Jerome told WLWT. “I mean, you go through four years of high school playing basketball, you look forward to your senior year.”

He is now suing the department, raising questions over religion, individual rights, and health policy.

Read more:
As more parents join the anti-vax movement, states are scrambling to make it harder to opt out of vaccinating your child

Kunkel’s claim about the vaccine being derived from aborted fetuses has been debunked. While the chickenpox vaccine does come from the cell lines of fetuses that were electively aborted in the 1960s, Josh Williams, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado in Denver told the Washington Post “there are no further abortions that have occurred to continue these cell lines.”

In a statement to ABC News, the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, said that the original cells were obtained decades ago and have been maintained under strict guidelines by the American Type Culture Collection. Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the vaccine education center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that while vaccines may contain nanofragments of DNA from fetal cells, “you would find as much if you analysed the fruits and vegetables you eat.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center also acknowledged that there isn’t a link between vaccines and abortions, noting that “There are a number of vaccines that are made in descendent cells of aborted fetuses… it is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child.”

The Kunkel’s lawsuit, filed on Thursday, alleges that the Northern Kentucky Health Department violated Jerome’s First Amendment rights, adding that it would be “immoral, illegal and sinful” to receive the vaccination since it violates their Catholic beliefs.

In 47 states, including Kentucky, parents can opt out of vaccinating their children for religious reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. So far this year, there have been six measles outbreaks and 268 people infected across 15 states – prompting a handful of states to propose laws to eliminate vaccine exemptions. Conversely, other states have introduced laws to bolster exemptions on the basis of religious or personal grounds.

In response to the lawsuit, the Northern Kentucky Health Department said “Unfortunately, some individuals, including the attorney who filed the lawsuit, have taken to social media to spread misinformation as part of their litigation strategy. It is unfortunate when social media is used as a weapon for misinformation to advance litigation agendas and to undermine our mission to protect public health.”

The Kunkels’ attorney, Chris Wiest, told The Washington Post he has been in contact with more than a dozen other families who want their children to be added as plaintiffs.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.