California Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law a new provision (SB 277) requiring all public and private schoolchildren to be vaccinated, with exceptions only for medical reasons. The law will be phased in, and it has a very small window for "personal belief" exemptions for non-run-of-the-mill vaccines, but it has no special exception for religious objections.
Nothing in the First Amendment or any other law will give parents opposed on religious grounds a way to object to the new vaccine law.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court held that a generally applicable law (forbidding the use of an hallucinogenic drug) had no exception under the First Amendment where Native Americans wanted to use the drug for religious reasons. The Court specifically noted that the "First Amendment's protection of religious liberty" does not require exemptions from "civic obligations" such as "compulsory vaccination laws."
The decision follows another from 1905, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where the Supreme Court upheld a mandatory vaccination law, making an analogy to conscription laws where men could be called into the armed forces even over their "religious or political convictions."
And, in 1944, the Supreme Court held in Prince v. Massachusetts that a parent "cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child," because the "right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease."
After the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, Congress passed a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (also known as RFRA), which gives some room to object to general federal laws for religious reasons. This will not impact California's new vaccination law because the federal RFRA does not apply to the States, and, unlike other States, California has no state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
California's courts also would be very unlikely to read a religious exception into the vaccination law, especially since the Legislature opted not to include one. In fact, the new law would actually repeal the existing law that allows for an exemption to immunizations based on personal beliefs.
And California's courts repeatedly have cited the Supreme Court's decisions in Jacobson and Prince for the proposition that compulsory vaccinations of children do not infringe on religious liberty interests.
California is now the 32nd state to eliminate a general personal belief exemption and the third (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) to eliminate a religious exemption.
So, any noise about challenging California's new vaccination law on religious grounds is just that -- noise. Get ready for the needles.