Compelled Behavior—Anti-vaxxers, Free-range Parents, and LGBT

Philip Barton is a former technology consultant for federal, state, and  local government, now writing political commentary and working on his  first novel.

Philip Barton is a former technology consultant for federal, state, and
local government, now writing political commentary and working on his
first novel.

In the U.S. we have the freedom to believe in most anything from logical to strange, but we don’t have the right to act on just any belief.  This distinction between beliefs and the right to act on those beliefs is well established in the law. While some examples may be obvious (such as laws against animal cruelty), there are shades of gray for some issues, and disagreements about what the laws “should” be, as the lines between believing in a cause and acting on it become blurred. We’ll look at three in this article, involving the anti-vaxxer movement, “free range” parenting, and services to those in the LBGT community.

Each of these three issues involves “compelled behavior.” While the majority of laws and court decisions involve what one cannot do, a more complicated situation exists when someone is required to take an action that they oppose. The latter tends to go more forcefully against the idea of individual freedom.  

It is one thing to stop someone from acting on their beliefs. It can be quite another to force them to act against their beliefs. As will be seen in the examples that follow, there is no one easy answer or fundamental principle that guides where compelled behavior is necessary or when it is unnecessary government overreach.

Opposition to Vaccinations

All states require measles vaccinations for children to be enrolled in public schools, though most states allow exemptions for religious or philosophical beliefs. A growing movement of parents are opposed to vaccinations, and this has led to new measles outbreaks for a disease that was previously felt to be fully contained in this country.

The rationale against vaccinations varies, but includes a belief in conspiracy theories and mistrust of authority.  A highly discredited theory that vaccines can cause autism also refuses to die in a world where some believe false information on social media before they believe objective information from scientists. False information is aided and abetted by events and in some cases hints of anti-Semitism and comparisons to Nazi Germany.

Some are against vaccinations because of objections to abortion. The thinking is that the principal vaccine was developed in part by using cells from an aborted fetus, and because of this connection the vaccine is morally tainted.

Pew Research from 2016 indicates that 82% of adults feel that healthy children should be required to be vaccinated, while 17% feel that parents should be able to decide. An updated survey would likely show the 17% figure to now be higher.

The rise in the anti-vax movement paired with the increase in measles in the U.S., some states are evaluating whether to revoke religions exemptions to mandatory vaccines, leading to protests.

Measles is highly communicable. The federal Centers for Disease Control indicates, “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

The rationale for “forced” vaccinations can be understood from the term “herd immunity.” This refers to the fact that if most of a population has been immunized against a highly contagious disease, then those that have not developed the immunity are less likely to be exposed.

Without “herd immunity,” that is, if many people in the population are not vaccinated, the disease will likely spread. State laws mandating vaccinations are in place to prevent epidemics.

Mandatory vaccinations are a classic case of two laudatory objectives clashing—the fundamental desire for individual freedom and the overall need for public safety.

“Free Range” Parenting

In October 2014, 10 year old Rafi Meitiv and his six year old sister, Dvora, were walking home from a nearby neighborhood park. A few days later the home was visited by two workers from Maryland’s Child Protective Services, concerned that the children were allowed to walk by themselves. The parents believed that their children were perfectly safe in that activity.

Later that year, father Alexander was driving the children home from synagogue, when the kids asked to go to a different playground, a mile away from home. The children had experience walking to and from the synagogue, and knew the rest of the way home. The father dropped them off, telling them to come home in a little while.

Halfway home, the kids were stopped by concerned police. According to news reports, the kids indicated that they were allowed to walk home by themselves. The police drove the children home.

This was followed by another visit from Child Protective Services, who required that the family not leave the children unsupervised until the matter was resolved. If they did not comply “the children would be taken into the custody of Child Protective Services.”

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, their parents, are what is known as “free range parents.” The idea is to raise children to function with greater independence and less parental supervision, in keeping with their age and reasonable attention to risk. In a real sense it is a return to a mindset from a few decades ago, when children engaged more independently in outside activities.

State laws vary as to the responsibilities of parents, but a general statement is found on the website:

A parent must serve a child’s emotional and physical needs and protect the child from abuse from the other parent or another household member. Additionally, parents must meet their children's basic needs for food, clothing, housing, medical care, and education.

Maryland is one of the few states with a specific law about when a child may not be left alone—under 8 years old, the child may not be left unattended in a house or car. There is no law indicating that children cannot be outside by themselves. However, in this case the state agency was concerned that the children might be subject to neglect.

The Meitiv’s were being told that they could not raise their children in the way that they, believed was more responsible than being what is known as “helicopter parents.” They were compelled to follow the dictates of state bureaucrats with a different view of responsible parenting.

How did this situation resolve? The Meitiv’s stuck to their guns. In April 2015 the parents dropped their kids off at a park and told them to return home in two hours. Two and a half hours later, when the children had not returned, the parents grew concerned. They called 911.

They discovered that they police had taken them into a patrol car, with the promise to drive them home. Instead the children were taken to Child Protective Services. The parents were not notified. The police and Child Protective Services, with a concern over “neglect” by parents, engaged in what many would call a greater abuse, separating children and parents for hours with neither understanding or being notified of the situation.

The Meitiv’s engaged an attorney, who indicated the children “know how to walk in the neighborhood. They’ve done this many times before…The police knew their phone number yet for whatever reason the parents were not called.”

In June 2015, Child Protective Services dropped the allegations of child neglect, indicating that neglect was ruled out..

The Child Protective Services agencies of each state tend to use a standard of “neglectful supervision” when deciding whether to intervene in a family’s affairs. Proponents of greater parental flexibility are working to raise the threshold to “blatant disregard.”

In May 2018, a new Utah law, first of its kind, indicates that a child may engage in independent activities, such as walking to and from school, bicycling, or going to a nearby store. Other states are considering the introduction of similar bills.

As in the case of mandatory vaccinations, parents have been told that they are compelled to act in a certain way—that they are required to stay with children at public parks and on sidewalks. Again, there is a clash in the beliefs of individuals and the law that forces them to actively act against them. Where is the appropriate line between protecting children and allowing parents to raise a family as they see fit?

Services to the LGBT Community

A premier example of compelled actions involves the opposition of some Christians to gay marriage.

Whether those beliefs can overcome state laws that require equal protection for LGBT individuals is a weighty issue with arguments on both sides. A 2015 decision by the Supreme Court did not come to a clear determination on whether a Christian baker is compelled to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple when they provide a wedding cake to other couples.

The Court said that business owners could not “deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” Yet it also said “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

Again, this is a question involving whether actions (business services to all members of the public) should be compelled (even if the business proprietor does not wish to participate in certain activities they find contrary to their beliefs).

What the Future Holds

These three examples illustrate that there is no straightforward answer when individual liberty clashes against concerns for public safety or the safety of children. The issue is particularly profound when liberty for one party clashes against liberty for another. In each circumstance considered here, individuals are potentially compelled to take actions they do not wish to take.

Ultimately, such issues are likely to be legislatively considered and judicially decided on a case by case basis, considering liberty for individuals against the legitimate government concerns for overall public safety, and determining the limited circumstances where the interests of fair play and equal protection call for compelled action.

The clash of competing rights presents difficult issues. Both the public and government are well-served if the legitimate concerns of both sides are weighed and understood.