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Decision No. 15,527

Appeal of L.P., on behalf of T.P., from action of the Board of Education of the Central Islip Union Free School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 15,527

(February 14, 2007)

Kevin A. Seaman, Esq., attorney for respondent

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the Board of Education of the Central Islip Union Free School District ("respondent") that his son, T.P., is not entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law ("PHL") §2164.  The appeal must be sustained.

     By letter dated July 10, 2005, petitioner and his wife requested that T.P. be admitted to respondent’s schools without being immunized, pursuant to the religious exemption provided under PHL §2164.  At the request of respondent's superintendent, respondent’s attorney met with petitioner on August 10, 2005 to determine whether the exemption should be granted.  In a report to the superintendent dated August 11, 2005, respondent’s attorney stated that while he believed petitioner possessed a very deep background in philosophy and a very sincere commitment to certain disciplines, it was his opinion that the basis for petitioner's rejection of immunizations is premised upon "a complementary/alternative medicine approach" which is not sufficient to merit an exemption under PHL §2164(9).  Respondent’s attorney stated that it was not clear to him from his interview of petitioner that petitioner possesses a "personal, sincere religious belief" or that he views life from a religious perspective. 

By letter dated September 29, 2005, the superintendent denied petitioner's request for a religious exemption to the immunization requirement based upon his review of the attorney's report.  Petitioner commenced this appeal on October 26, 2005.  Petitioner's request for interim relief was denied on November 4, 2005.

     The determination whether a religious exemption is warranted requires careful consideration of two factors: whether petitioner’s purported beliefs are religious and whether the beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held (see PHL §2164[a]; Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, et al., 116 F. Supp 2d 503).  It is not necessary for persons to be members of a recognized religious organization whose teachings oppose inoculation in order to claim the statutory exemption (Sherr, et al. v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School Dist., et al., 672 F Supp 81).  However, the exemption 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, et al., 116 F Supp 2d 503).

     Petitioner alleges that his family has sincere religious beliefs and convictions against immunization.  Petitioner states "[w]e see God as the Divine Consciousness, the culmination of all the energy in the universe.  We believe that energy is innately conscious.  We believe that all things both animate and inanimate (by human perception) are made of energy and are a part of God and a microcosm of the divine."  Petitioner further states that he and his family" ... regularly practice individual and group prayer in the form of Kirtan (singing prayers in Sanskrit) and Japa (repetition of mantra)." 

     Petitioner submits a letter dated October 15, 2005 from "an ordained, interfaith" minister who has known petitioner and his wife for seven years and who performed petitioner's marriage ceremony, in addition to providing them with pre-marital and spiritual counseling.  The minister states "[t]heir belief system holds that invasive practices such as immunization is a direct violation of Divine Will and nature, and in the innate ability of the body to heal itself." 

     Petitioner also states in his affidavit that he was a devout Catholic until the age of 20, and in 1994 experienced "a major paradigm shift" which prompted him to abandon the Catholic faith and pursue a path of mysticism, which petitioner understands as "a mystical communion with an ultimate reality" and an "immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God."  Petitioner states his religious beliefs were already established at the time he became a "wholistic [sic]" healthcare practitioner, and thus pre-date and, in fact, prompted his training as a wholistic healthcare practitioner.  Petitioner also states that he is a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga, which he translates as "devotional" Yoga, involving "chanting and singing prayers to the Divine Being in its myriad manifestations," including the Hindu deities "Shiva the Lord of Consciousness," and "Ganesha ... the remover of obstacles and son of Shiva," so as to attain "union with the Divine."  Petitioner further states that he avoids” ... using the term 'God" as it connotes the personified deity of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim religions" and that he prefers terminology such as "Divine Consciousness or Great Spirit."  Petitioner further states that that "[t]he issue that vaccinations pose to my families [sic] religious beliefs stem from the introduction into the body of a being/demon/entity (in this case viruses) which is malevolent to that body, regardless of the entity being scientifically deemed dead or alive.  If it is the Great Spirit's will that an individual's body should fall prey to such an entity then so be it, it is not the place of mortals to make such decisions."

     Petitioner further explains why his religious beliefs prevent him from vaccinating his children, as follows: "When a foreign being/entity/spirit/demon enters the body with malicious intent disease ensues.  That negative being seeks to possess the afflicted person's energetic system.  These beings are sentient and evil.  To purposely take them in is to desecrate the body and undermine its sovereignty.  Even if the being/entity/demon has been injured, weakened or killed, its remains still carry its energetic signature,  Thus to allow it entry into the body would be to take in evil and malice.  Such practices are completely and utterly unacceptable to our religious beliefs."  Petitioner also states that at the time he met with the school district attorney, he was reluctant to fully explain his religious beliefs for fear of ridicule.

Petitioner also submits an affidavit from his wife, who states that the principles of the Raja Yoga system, of which she is a devotee, prohibit “the introduction into the body of malevolent entities/beings such as measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, polio, etc. which are contained in vaccinations."  She further states that "[t]o intentionally take into the body beings that cause sickness and disease is to embrace illness; to align one's self with evil and malice" which may, pursuant to the Law of Karma, "cause ramifications that extend well beyond the boundaries of this lifetime, not only for T.P., but for myself and my husband as well."  She further states "[o]ur bodies are our vehicles on the path to enlightenment.  Their sanctity and purity must be preserved."

     Based on the record before me, I find the weight of the evidence supports petitioner’s contentions that his opposition to immunization stems from sincerely held religious beliefs.  Furthermore, there is nothing in the record which establishes that petitioner's objection to immunization is based solely on philosophical, scientific, medical or personal preference.  I also reject respondent's contention that petitioner's objection to immunization has merely been framed in terms of religious belief so as to gain the legal remedy desired (see Matter of Sherr v. Northport-E.Northport Union Free School Dist., 672 F. Supp 81, at 94).  To the contrary, petitioner's beliefs and his objection to immunization, although personalized to some extent, are principally based upon petitioner's interpretation of concepts and practices found in Hinduism and other Eastern religions, and are accordingly religious in nature.  While petitioner does not allege that he is a member or formal practitioner of Hinduism or any other specific religion, there is no requirement that he be such in order to qualify for a religious exemption to immunizations (Sherr, et al. v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School Dist., et al., 672 F Supp 81; Appeal of L.K., 45 Ed Dept Rep 10, Decision No. 15,243). 

In addition, while petitioner's religious beliefs may also include some aspects of alternative or holistic medicine, that does not necessarily require the conclusion that they are not religious beliefs (seeAppeal of C.D. and E.D., 46 Ed Dept Rep ___, Decision No. 15,520).  As petitioner notes, his religious beliefs pre-date, and prompted, his training as a holistic healthcare practitioner.      

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED.

IT IS ORDERED that respondent grant T.P. a religious exemption from the immunization requirements pursuant to Public Health Law §2164(9).

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