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Decision No. 14,318

Appeal of LISA A. DE LEON, on behalf of KAI AVENT-DE LEON, from action of the Board of Education of the Pleasantville Union Free School District regarding exclusion from school due to lack of immunization.

Decision No. 14,318

(March 2, 2000)

Law Office of Arnold B. Green, attorney for respondent, Giacchino J. Russo, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the Board of Education of the Pleasantville Union Free School District ("respondent") that her daughter, Kai, must be immunized pursuant to Public Health Law "2164. The appeal must be sustained in part.

On September 2, 1997, petitioner asked respondent to admit Kai to its schools. Kai was placed in a fourth grade class and began school on September 3. Approximately three weeks later, the school nurse telephoned petitioner and requested documentation showing Kai had been immunized. Petitioner delivered a letter to the nurse requesting an exemption from immunization based on her personal religious beliefs.

By letter dated October 20, 1997, Superintendent Antonecchia notified petitioner that respondent’s attorney had reviewed her request and determined that the beliefs she described did not entitle her to an exemption. Petitioner made several written requests for reconsideration which were denied. Respondent’s attorney notified petitioner that she had until November 30, 1997 to obtain the required immunizations or file an appeal to the Commissioner. This appeal ensued. Petitioner’s request for interim relief was granted on December 1, 1997.

Petitioner claims that her sincerely held religious beliefs would be violated if her daughter were immunized and argues that respondent improperly rejected her request for an exemption. Petitioner argues that she previously received such an exemption from the Hamilton Central School District.

Respondent asserts that petitioner has not established that her beliefs are sincere or that they are religious rather than moral, ethical or scientific. Respondent further argues that petitioner has not described her religious practices sufficiently.

Education Law "914 provides that each school shall require every child to provide proof of immunization in accordance with Public Health Law "2164. Section 2164 requires parents to have their children immunized against certain diseases. As stated in Appeal of McGann (32 Ed Dept Rep 187, Decision No. 12,800):

The Legislature enacted this statute after determining that immunization is effective and safe. The purpose of immunization is to protect children who are immunized as well as the health and economic well-being of the community (Section 1 of L. 1968, c. 1094). In every case the needs of the State must be balanced with the needs of the individual....

There are two exceptions to the immunization requirement. Under Public Health Law "2164(8), if a licensed physician certifies that immunization may be detrimental to a child's health, the child is exempted. Because petitioner makes no claim that a physician has determined that the required immunizations might prove harmful to her daughter, the medical exemption does not apply in this case.

The second exemption is provided under "2164(9), which states:

This section shall not apply to children whose parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required, and no certificate shall be required as a prerequisite to such children being admitted or received into school or attending school.

Thus, the issue is whether petitioner's opposition to immunization stems from sincerely held religious beliefs.

In her initial request for an exemption, petitioner stated in part:

I believe that life is not characterized by disease. The Creator is another word for life. One characteristic of The Creator is health.

I believe that when a person focuses on disease, disease is what is manifested. Focusing on life manifests life. Medications taken in expectation of disease create disease. Immunization focuses on disease and is contrary to the natural order.

I believe that disease is a lack of expression of life (The Creator) in a living creature.

Petitioner expressed similar beliefs to the Hamilton Central School District as the basis for her request for an exemption from immunization in 1993.

Courts have recognized that religious beliefs encompass more than traditional forms of worship and include the notion of a person’s "ultimate concern" (See, Mason v General Brown CSD, 851 F2d 47, 51 [2d Cir 1988]). In Sherr v. Northport-East Northport UFSD, 672 F. Supp. 81, one plaintiff espoused views similar to petitioner’s. The court reviewed extensive documentation and testimony regarding plaintiff’s beliefs, analyzed governing precedent and concluded that plaintiff’s beliefs clearly were religious. The court went on to find that the plaintiff was not entitled to an exemption because his beliefs were not "sincerely held."

Here, respondent summarily concluded that petitioner’s beliefs are not religious and could not support an exemption no matter how sincerely held. On this record and in light of the precedent discussed above, I cannot agree.

Respondent now argues that the fact that petitioner’s daughter was immunized as an infant demonstrates that petitioner does not hold religious beliefs prohibiting immunization. Petitioner counters that she developed strong religious beliefs after her daughter was immunized and points out that her daughter’s previous school exempted her from the immunization requirements for the four years prior to her admission to respondent’s school. Petitioner contends that only strong religious beliefs would lead her to forego a practice that has been deemed to be medically sound.

On the record before me, it does not appear that respondent fully examined these arguments to determine whether petitioner’s beliefs are sincerely held. Whether a religious belief is sincerely held is a difficult factual determination that must be made, in the first instance, by school district officials (Appeal of Murphy, 34 Ed Dept Rep 648, Decision No. 13,439; Appeal of McGann, supra). In making this determination, school officials must make a good faith effort to assess the credibility of petitioner's statements and sincerity; while they are not required to simply accept a statement of religious belief without some examination, they similarly should not simply reject a statement without further examination (Appeal of Murphy, supra; Appeal of McGann, supra).

Because respondent denied the exemption based on petitioner’s written request and never met with her to further assess the credibility or basis of her belief, I find the denial of the exemption premature and thus arbitrary. I, therefore, remand this case to respondent to develop a more complete record from which it may ascertain the nature and sincerity of petitioner’s beliefs.

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED IN PART.

IT IS ORDERED that respondent meet with petitioner and with any witnesses the parties deem necessary to assess the nature and sincerity of petitioner’s beliefs regarding immunization, and continue to permit petitioner’s daughter to attend school within the district until such assessment is completed.

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