Arkansas judge denies students' appeal to vaccination policy

A judge has denied two University of Arkansas students' request to block a public health decree that has barred them from attending classes during a mumps outbreak because they don't have the proper vaccinations

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- A judge has denied two University of Arkansas students' request to block a public health decree that has barred them from attending classes during a mumps outbreak because they don't have the proper vaccinations.

The Arkansas Department of Health issued the public health directive in a Nov. 22 letter that stated students without at least two doses of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine either be vaccinated immediately or be barred from classrooms and school activities for at least 26 days.

Brothers Shiloh Isaiah and Benjamin Andrew Bemis asked the Washington County Circuit to issue a temporary injunction, arguing “that the University of Arkansas failed to recognize and uphold our philosophical beliefs as enrolled students -- beliefs which include the choice to abstain from vaccinations.”

In a one-sentence order, Judge Doug Martin on Tuesday denied their request to be allowed to return to their classes without getting the vaccinations. Martin's order didn't explain the reason for the decision.

Shiloh Bemis, 21, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he's disappointed in the court's order.

“On a larger level, we are taking issue with the fact that we don't think we've quite been given a choice that fully takes into account what we believe our rights to be,” the third-year architecture student from Fayetteville said.

Benjamin Bemis didn't respond to the Democrat-Gazette's request for comment.

State law requires vaccinations for students, but it also allows exemptions for medical, religious or philosophical reasons.

But the state Health Department said even exempted students must heed the public health directive.

“Even if they have an exemption, they still are supposed to be excluded from class and activities, since they are much more susceptible to getting the infection,” said Dr. Joel Tumlison, a physician specialist in the health department's outbreak response team. “For any student, whether simply undervaccinated or with an exemption, if they change their mind and get the vaccine, they can then return to class/activities."

University spokesman Mark Rushing said the school will continue to follow the health department's instructions.

The university has had 26 mumps cases since September, according to health officials. As of last week, 168 students lacked the required vaccinations to attend classes, UA spokesman Zac Brown said.