What happens when divorced parents with joint legal custody disagree about whether their child should be given the routine childhood immunizations? That’s the issue in Grzyb v. Grzyb (Va. Cir. Ct.), decided in mid-2009 but just uploaded to Westlaw a day or two ago.
The Grzybs were the divorced parents of a 3-year-old girl, with “joint legal custody of the child, which implicitly included joint decision-making regarding the child’s medical and health care.” The father wanted the daughter immunized, but the mother had a religious objection to the immunization:
Mrs. Grzyb ... testified that she first formed a religious objection to vaccinations when she was pregnant with the child, that she “prayed about it a lot,” and felt “led by the Holy Spirit” to the conclusion that the child should not receive routine immunizations. She testified that “I never felt so strong about anything outside of faith as I do about vaccination.” ... Ms. Grzyb’s pastor, the Reverend Scott Mauer, ... [testified] that it was not a tenet of his religion that children remain unvaccinated. Rather, he testified that “this falls into an area that we would consider to be what the Bible often refers to as disputable matters, which are areas that the Bible does not necessarily address directly.” He continues:
in those cases, historically the position that the Baptist Church has taken is that a person should apply the best understandings of our truth of the scripture and also the sensitivities believing as the Holy Spirit and come to a conviction about it. And that furthermore if they do come to a conviction based upon those things, that they are then to be obedient to that conviction because the Bible is clear that, if a person has come to a conviction that they do believe is from God, that to the best of their ability that they believe that in good faith before the Lord, that if they do not then pursue that directive of that decision that they are in sin.
Now if this were just a matter of whether two parents acting together (or a sole custodial parent) were exempt from the Virginia immunization requirement, Mrs. Grzyb’s religious objection would give her a statutory immunity (see subsec. D(1)). But in this case, the question was what should be done to the child when the two parents who share legal custody disagree. The common answer is such situations is to conclude that joint legal custody isn’t working out on this question — since joint custody presupposes an ability to agree — and one parent should be given sole custody as to medical matters. But which parent?
Here’s the court’s analysis: The court concludes that (1) getting immunized would indeed be in the child’s best interests, given the medical expert testimony that, “the risk of ‘serious complications’ [from vaccines] was ‘very low’ and that [the child] is ‘at greater risk of the diseases that the vaccines protect against, absolutely.’” But the court also observed that (2) the mother was more actively involved in the child’s medical care: