The case is about whether parents who have lost custody can still control their children's religion and health.
The Georgia Supreme Court considered whether children in temporary foster care can receive routine childhood immunizations over the objections of their biological parents during oral arguments on Thursday.
In 2021, the state removed three children from their parents’ custody because of severe physical abuse by the father.
The removal was temporary, with a plan in place to eventually reunify the family after the parents met certain requirements.
Their biological parents objected to their children receiving their routine childhood vaccines. They asked the Forsyth County juvenile court to stop the state from having the children immunized, claiming religious and philosophical objections.
The juvenile court denied that request, leading to the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Typically, parents whose children are in custody have the right to visit their children and the right to object or consent to an adoption.
This case considered whether parents’ rights extend further such that they could direct medical or religious aspects of their children’s lives even after the children have been removed from custody.
“If the state is doing certain things to protect the best interests of the child that… to others may have a really important religious overlay [such as immunization]: that collision is why we’re here,” said Justice Sarah Hawkins Warren.
While the removal from custody was only temporary, immunizations are irreversible, the lawyer for the parents, David Hume, contended.
“Parents expect…their rights to be fully restored at end of temporary custody…and that includes the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children and the right to object to vaccinating their children,” Hume said.
“If the children are vaccinated…over the religious objections of the parents, then that right will be lost forever,” Hume added.
But once children have been removed from their parents’ custody, parents retain very limited rights to decide what is in the children’s best interests, argued Stephen Petrany, the Georgia solicitor general, on behalf of the Department of Human Services, which oversees foster care.
“The parents have been deemed unfit because their children were being abused,” Petrany said. “The parental rights, the [religious] liberty right … is dependent on their being fit parents.
“DFCS (The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services) and the juvenile court have to go with what their view of the best interest of the child is.”
In this case, that would be providing the children with their routine childhood immunizations, Petrany said.
Edward Bedard appeared on behalf of the religious liberty law section of the Georgia Bar Association.
His organization did not support a particular outcome in this case, he said.
However, courts should apply the very highest legal standard of strict scrutiny when interfering with parents’ religious rights, Bedard contended.
This case marked David Nahmias’s last as the Supreme Court chief justice. Nahmias will resign on July 17, and Michael Boggs will take over as chief justice.
A last case about children in foster care was fitting for Nahmias, who was devoted to improving the lives of children, especially those in foster and adoptive care.
Nahmias served on the court’s Committee on Justice for Children and the board of directors of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, an organization that advocates for justice and equity for children.
“The dedicated service to matters involving kids is surpassed by only one thing and that is his devotion to his own family,” Boggs said Thursday during a brief ceremony honoring Nahmias.
The court next meets to hear oral arguments on Aug. 23.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.