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Decision No. 15,091

Appeal of C.R. and C.R., on behalf of M.R., from action of the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of North Tonawanda regarding exclusion from school due to lack of immunization.

Decision No. 15,091

(July 26, 2004)

 

Norton/Radin/Hoover/Freedman, attorneys for respondent, Andrew J. Freedman, Esq., of counsel

 

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the determination of the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of North Tonawanda (“respondent”) that their daughter, M.R., is not entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements under Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164. The appeal must be sustained.

In April 2003, petitioners registered M.R. for kindergarten at respondent’s Meadow Elementary School. By letter dated March 25, 2003, an attorney requested an exemption from the immunization requirement under PHL §2164(9) on petitioners’ behalf. Section 2164(9) provides:

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.

On May 19, 2003, respondent afforded petitioners an opportunity to meet with the district’s coordinator of student health and the district’s attorney regarding their exemption request for M.R. Petitioners’ then-attorney, who had made the written request, participated via telephone.

By letter dated May 30, 2003, the coordinator of student health summarily denied petitioners’ request for an exemption. The letter stated, in pertinent part, “[W]hile it is apparent that you are personally against immunizations, you could not articulate the religious basis for this request . . . . While your opposition to immunizations seems sincere, I have determined on behalf of the District that it is not religious in nature as required by the statute.” This appeal ensued. Petitioners’ request for interim relief was denied on August 27, 2003.

The issue in this appeal is whether petitioners’ opposition to immunization stems from sincerely held religious beliefs. The exemption from immunization does not extend to persons whose views are founded upon medical or purely moral considerations, scientific or secular theories, or philosophical and personal beliefs (Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, 116 F Supp 2d 503). However, it is not necessary for persons to be members of a recognized religious organization whose teachings oppose inoculation (Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School Dist., 672 F Supp 81). The courts have found that “[b]ecause the statutory exception of PHL §2164(9) is for persons whose opposition to immunizations stems from genuine and sincere ‘religious’ beliefs, . . . the Court must first determine whether [petitioners’] purported beliefs are religious, and only if they are, determine whether those beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held” (Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, supra at 507; see also Galinsky v. Bd. of Educ. of City of New York, 213 F 3d 626; Turner v. Bd. of Educ. of the Liverpool Central School Dist., 186 F Supp 2d 187).

Whether a religious belief is sincerely held can be a difficult factual determination that must be made, in the first instance, by school district officials (Appeal of Quigley, 41 Ed Dept Rep 399, Decision No. 14,724; Appeal of Bork, 39 id. 549, Decision No. 14,307; Appeal of Murphy, 34 id. 648, Decision No. 13,439). In making this determination, school officials must make a good faith effort to assess the credibility of petitioners’ statements and sincerity and may consider petitioners’ demeanor and forthrightness (Appeal of Quigley, supra; Appeal of Murphy, supra; see Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, supra; Matter of Christine M., 157 Misc.2d 4). While school officials 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).

In an appeal to the Commissioner, petitioners bear the burden of establishing the facts upon which they seek relief and demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested (8 NYCRR §275.10; Appeal of Goldin, 43 Ed Dept Rep ___, Decision No. 15,009; Appeal of L.S., 41 id. 270, Decision No. 14,683). For the reasons set forth below, I find that petitioners have met this burden.

Respondent gave petitioners a full opportunity to explain their beliefs during the May 19 meeting held between petitioners, their attorney, respondent’s student health coordinator and respondent’s attorney. A transcript of that meeting reveals that Mrs. R. stated the following beliefs:

God created us in his image . . . with His immune system and His body . . . that if we were to give our children immunizations, that we would be showing a lack of faith in God: showing Him that we didn’t believe in what He gave us. And that would be . . . against our practices.

. . .

If God gave us something to work with, like the immune system, we cant [sic] go against what he did . . . what he gave us. . . . [A]s far as our immune system and the health of our bodies we feel very strongly that we cannot defile what God has given us.

. . .

We don’t vaccinate. Whether this [vaccine] would be good or bad, they’re all equal to us. It’s just not done.

. . .

If the child was ill we would treat the child. But if the child was healthy we are not going to put something into them that’s not necessary.

Mrs. R. stated that she came to this realization at a particular point in time during a sermon on faith when the pastor, referring to Proverb 3:5-6,[1] asked, “[In] what ways are you not showing your faith to God?” She realized that she was not trusting Him with her children. Afterward, petitioners talked and prayed about it. Petitioners stated that since that time, M.R. has not been immunized and their two-year-old child has never received any immunizations. Both petitioners agreed that they would treat a sick child.

In their petition, petitioners explain that they are Wesleyans, attend services weekly at the Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church and show their Christian beliefs daily by the way they live their lives. As examples, they state that they pray as a family at certain times each day, tithe, pray for guidance in daily living, study from the bible and “do devotionals . . . witness to others . . . and try to live in the image of Christ.” They state that their beliefs about immunizations do not stem directly from Wesleyan teachings, but rather from their own interpretation of scripture and where that leads them in their relationship with God. “Neither are our beliefs frowned upon by our church, but accepted as personal interpretation as allowed in our church doctrine.” They believe that “according to the Bible disease is unclean and that its injection into the body is defilement. . . . [I]mmunizations are unclean because they contain disease. . . . [B]ecause they are unclean they are unholy.”

Respondent cites Farina v. Bd. of Educ., (supra), for the proposition that “merely stating that God provides an immune system is not enough to demonstrate that Plaintiff’s belief is a genuine and sincere religious belief.” However, this record is in direct contrast to that in Farina. There the court determined that the Farinas’ objections to immunizations were not religious in nature but personal and represented a belief that inoculations would be damaging to the physical health of their children. The court found Mrs. Farina’s testimony evasive and inconsistent, and concluded that the testimony and documentation upon which the Farinas relied appeared to be not of their own deeply held convictions, but borrowed from outside sources to obtain the exemption. The court described Mrs. Farina’s testimony as “boilerplate religious sentiments” and rejected her testimony because it doubted the sincerity of her professed beliefs, not the religious nature of the beliefs.

Here, respondent found petitioners’ beliefs to be sincerely held, but questioned their religious nature. However, as respondent points out, the beliefs expressed by petitioners concerning the immune system are very similar to those professed by Mrs. Farina, which the court acknowledged were “religious.” At the May 19 meeting, petitioners articulated that they believe that immunization shows a lack of faith in God and specified the precise origin of their belief. Petitioners do not reject medical intervention in all circumstances, but differentiate between defilement of a healthy body, which is contrary to their beliefs, and treatment of a sick one. Their testimony appeared consistent and straightforward. There is no evidence that petitioners’ position is based on philosophical, scientific, medical or personal preference.

I conclude that the weight of the evidence supports petitioners’ contentions. I also find that respondent fails to adequately explain its rejection of otherwise convincing testimony. I cannot, therefore, defer to respondent’s assessment of petitioners’ credibility, to the extent such an assessment was made (see e.g., Appeal of Grihin, 38 Ed Dept Rep 399, Decision No. 14, 064).

Accordingly, based on the record before me, I find respondent’s determination to be arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.

 

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED.

END OF FILE

 


[1] “Trust in the Lord with all your heart

and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways acknowledge Him,

and He will make your paths straight.”