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Decision No. 16,421

Appeal of C.O., on behalf of her daughter O.O., from action of the Board of Education of the Williamsville Central School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 16,421

(October 5, 2012)

Hodgson Russ LLP, attorneys for respondent, Emina Poricanin, Esq., of counsel

KING, JR., Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the Board of Education of the Williamsville Central School District (“respondent”) that her daughter, O.O., is not entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be sustained to the extent indicated and remanded.

On August 10, 2011, petitioner requested admission for her daughter to attend kindergarten for the 2011-2012 school year and submitted a written request for a religious exemption from immunization for her daughter.  Petitioner stated that she and her husband are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and expressed several reasons for her request.   She stated, among other things, that:

One of our most closely-held beliefs is the sanctity of life.  We believe that God is our Father and we are his children.  Only He has the right and power to take life.  One of my greatest oppositions to vaccinations is that many of them (currently twenty-four vaccinations) are derived from cell-cultures from aborted human fetuses.  We are opposed to abortion, as it violates God’s commandment not to kill, and likewise to the use of aborted fetuses in scientific research and production of a substance that is injected into another’s body.

She stated further that:

Another of our strongest beliefs is that our bodies are created by God, and he has designed them with a perfect immune system equipped to fight off infectious disease ... our bodies are temples to our spirits, and that we should not take anything harmful or unclean into our bodies.  Vaccines are created and preserved with many harmful chemicals....  We also believe God has provided many natural methods to prevent and fight off disease without the use of vaccinations....  We also believe in the gift of healing when we do get sick, through faith, prayer and priesthood power.

By letter dated August 16, 2011, the elementary school principal invited petitioner to a meeting with her and respondent’s counsel on August 22, 2011.  The parties dispute what transpired at the meeting.  Petitioner contends that the principal and attorney directed the discussion and asked her questions regarding medical issues that did not appear to relate to her religious beliefs.  The principal avers in an affidavit that petitioner “mentioned religion ... only a couple of times” and stated, among other things, that she suffered from a medical condition that was hereditary and feared that her children would suffer from it, and that drug company studies have shown a link between vaccinations and autism.

On September 2, 2011, petitioner received an undated letter from the principal denying her request.  The principal determined that petitioner’s opposition to immunization was medical, personal and philosophical in nature, not religious, and was “based upon a deeply rooted fear of the chemicals in vaccinations and their potential effect on [O.’s] health.”  The principal’s determination was based on several factors: that petitioner stated that she suffers from a genetic autoimmune disorder and “fear[ed] that exposing [her] children to vaccines may cause them to have the same adverse physical reactions;” that petitioner had spoken “extensively about harmful chemicals in vaccinations ... and their reported link to autism” which undercut her objection for religious reasons; and that petitioner “failed to specify or provide any evidence that indicates which, if any, vaccines actually contain” aborted fetal tissue even though she opposed the use of such tissue in vaccines.  Petitioner asserts that after receiving the letter she requested a second meeting to further explain her beliefs but her request was denied.  This appeal ensued.

Petitioner contends that respondent’s decision denying her request for an exemption was irrational and unreasonable because it was not based on her written statement of religious beliefs, but rather was based on the interview during which the principal and attorney allegedly “directed” the conversation toward medical issues.  She asserts that she has religious objections to vaccinations and that the denial violates her First Amendment right to freedom of religion.  Petitioner seeks a determination that her daughter is entitled to attend school without immunizations.

Respondent contends that the principal’s determination was not arbitrary, capricious or in violation of the law.

PHL §2164 prohibits a school from admitting a child without evidence that the child has received certain immunizations.  However, §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.

The determination of whether petitioner qualifies for a religious exemption requires the careful consideration of two factors:  whether petitioner’s purported beliefs are religious and, if so, whether such religious beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held (seeFarina 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 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).

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 C.S., 49 Ed Dept Rep 106, Decision No. 15,971; Appeal of H.K. and T.K., 49 id. 56, Decision No. 15,957; Appeal of S.B., 48 id. 332, Decision No. 15,875).  A parent/guardian who seeks a religious exemption must submit a written and signed statement to the school district stating that the parent/guardian objects to their child’s immunization due to sincere and genuine religious beliefs which prohibit the immunization of their child (10 NYCRR §66-1.3[d]).  If, after reviewing the parental statement, questions remain about the existence of a sincerely held religious belief, the principal or person in charge of a school may request supporting documents (10 NYCRR §66-1.3[d]).

In determining whether beliefs are religious in nature and sincerely held, school officials must make a good faith effort to assess the credibility and sincerity of petitioner’s statements and may consider petitioner’s demeanor and forthrightness.  While school officials are not required to simply accept a statement of religious belief without some explanation, they similarly should not simply reject a statement without further examination (Appeal of C.S., 49 Ed Dept Rep 106, Decision No. 15,971; Appeal of H.K. and T.K., 49 id. 56, Decision No. 15,957; Appeal of S.B., 48 id. 332, Decision No. 15,875).

In her petition, petitioner provides examples of how her religion permeates her daily life and that of her family and asserts that:

... the crux of our family’s decision [not to vaccinate their children] is completely religious, and is the supreme reason we cannot vaccinate our children.  It goes against our core beliefs and personal convictions, which I was not able to completely discuss with the respondents during our meeting.  The crux of our decision is based upon personal prayer to God to ask Him His will for us and our children, and we firmly believe He has answered our prayers and confirmed that we should not vaccinate our children.

Petitioner explains that a tenet of the church’s “foundational beliefs” is that:

... each member of the church is entitled to personal revelation for themselves and their families through praying to God and receiving answers to prayers through the Holy Ghost.  In order to receive personal revelation, we have to keep ourselves worthy by keeping God’s commandments....  When we have an especially important decision to make, we pray many times about it, counseling with God, asking Him for guidance and help in making these decisions.  Often we will also fast ..., to humble ourselves and sacrifice something important to show our sincerity and earnestness to receive an answer to our prayers.  Our decision whether or not to vaccinate our children was one of these important decisions that we do not take lightly.  It is one of those decisions about which I have fasted and prayed earnestly, and have received a confirmation from God-that He is pleased with and condones my decision.  We also believe that once we receive revelation from God, to us it is a personal “commandment” that we should follow.  We believe our eternal salvation is dependent upon following God’s commandments, and that our daily decisions will affect our eternal outcome.  We believe we have received personal direction from God to not vaccinate our children, and to us it is a personal “commandment.”  This is the crux of our decision.  We cannot go against it because we are convinced that this is God’s will for our children.

Petitioner further states that:

One of my religious oppositions to vaccinations is that many of them are derived from cell cultures from aborted human fetuses ... We are opposed to abortion, as it violates God’s commandment to not kill, and likewise to the use of aborted fetuses in scientific research and production of a substance that is injected into another’s body.

Petitioner explains that “[a]nother of my religious objections to vaccinations ... is that our bodies are a creation of God, and that he has designed them with a perfect immune system equipped to fight off infectious disease ... our bodies are temples to our spirits, and that we should not take anything that is unclean or harmful into our bodies, which in turn also harms our spirits.”

In her petition, petitioner provides a chart showing 24 vaccines that she asserts are produced using cells from aborted fetuses and/or contain DNA, proteins or related cellular debris from cell cultures derived from aborted human fetuses.  She also provides a letter from her Bishop explaining some of the beliefs of her church and the doctrine of personal revelation.  Prior to rendering its determination, respondent denied petitioner’s request for an additional opportunity to further explain her beliefs, and had neither the chart nor the Bishop’s letter before it when making its determination.  In its answer, respondent denies knowledge or information about petitioner’s religious activities, and denies or denies knowledge or information about petitioner’s stated beliefs.  However, respondent fails to address the substance of petitioner’s religious beliefs as articulated in the petition, including her evidence to support her claim of a linkage between the use of cells derived from aborted human fetal tissues and certain vaccines.  I acknowledge that the record indicates that petitioner did not provide respondent with evidence indicating which, if any, vaccines actually contain aborted fetal tissue until she commenced this appeal.  However, I also note that petitioner alleges that respondent never requested that she produce such evidence during the August 22 meeting, even though her August exemption request states that 24 vaccinations are derived from cell-cultures from aborted human fetuses and the principal’s denial letter cites the lack of such evidence as one of the bases for denying her request.

On the record before me, it does not appear that respondent has fully examined whether petitioner’s beliefs are religious in nature and sincerely held.  As noted above, whether a religious belief is sincerely held is a difficult factual determination that must be made, in the first instance, by school district officials.  Accordingly, rather than attempt to review a determination which did not include a full assessment of and/or response to petitioner’s beliefs as expressed in her request and in this appeal, I will remand this matter to respondent for full consideration of and a determination on whether petitioner’s request for an exemption from immunization should be granted in whole or in part.

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED AND REMANDED.

IT IS ORDERED that, within 30 days of this order, respondent make a determination as to whether petitioner’s daughter is entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements of PHL §2164 in whole or in part and that, in making such determination, respondent shall consider all relevant information submitted by petitioner.

END OF FILE.