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Decision No. 17,196

Appeal of E.F., on behalf of her daughter L.L., from action of the Board of Education of the Williamsville Central School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,196

(September 27, 2017)

Hodgson Russ LLP, attorneys for respondent, Andrew J. Freedman, Esq., of counsel

     ELIA, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the Board of Education of the Williamsville Central School District (“respondent”) that her daughter, L.L. (the “student”), is not entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be dismissed. 

Upon the student’s enrollment in respondent’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (“UPK”) program during the 2014-2015 school year, petitioner submitted a Request for Religious Exemption to Immunization Form dated August 25, 2014, thereby requesting a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of PHL §2164.  Petitioner contended that the student was exempt from vaccinations due to her religious beliefs, which included her belief that “God created us exactly as he intended us to be. We are given his perfect immune system.”  Petitioner further explained that:

Our daughter was an unexpected and beautifully, miraculous addition to our family. Born to a 44 [year] old mother and 48 [year] old father....  I never took any medication - even aspirin at my Doctor’s urging to maintain her health and safety in utero.  

In the letter, petitioner quoted, and cited to, Biblical verses.  Petitioner further stated:

We do not believe in injecting foreign and impure toxic substances into the life blood of our child.  We object to the use of so many complicated, complex and toxic vaccines in the body of our pure, vulnerable, perfectly miraculous child. 

Petitioner met with the school principal and respondent’s counsel on September 2, 2014.

By letter dated September 5, 2014, the school principal notified petitioner that her exemption request was denied because “it is evident that your reasons for the exemption request are based on philosophical and medical reasons, not sincerely held religious reasons.”  The September 5, 2014 letter also informed petitioner that she could appeal the principal’s determination to the Commissioner of Education within 30 days pursuant to Education Law §310.  Petitioner did not appeal the 2014-2015 denial but instead submitted a second religious exemption request dated March 30, 2015, in connection with the student’s registration for kindergarten in respondent’s district for the 2015-2016 school year.  In petitioner’s subsequent letter for religious exemption request dated March 27, 2015, petitioner stated in part that:

In compliance with NYS law, we herewith submit a written statement to exempt our child from the [I]mmunization requirement and the Mantaux (PPD) Tuberculin Test, because we hold genuine and sincere personal religious beliefs that are inconsistent with those medical procedures.

Petitioner further stated:

The practice of vaccination is contrary to our conscientiously held religious beliefs and practices, and violates the free practice of our religious principals [sic]; and

It is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution for any institution representing government, to inquire into the details on one’s religious beliefs for the purpose of determining the truthfulness or genuineness of said beliefs.

Petitioner again met with the school principal and respondent’s counsel on June 9, 2015.  According to respondent, petitioner “kept insisting she was entitled to the exemption, that she would not inject ‘foreign substances’ into her body, and that vaccines were man-made chemicals, toxins, and poison.”

By letter dated June 24, 2015, respondent denied petitioner’s request for a religious exemption, determining as follows:

[T]the district may only grant exemptions from the immunization requirements based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Based on your letters, the information you supplied, and the meetings held, it is evident that your reasons for the exemption request are based on philosophical and medical reasons, not sincerely held religious beliefs.

The June 24, 2015 letter also informed petitioner that she could appeal the principal’s determination to the Commissioner of Education pursuant to Education Law §310.  This appeal ensued.  Petitioner’s request for interim relief was denied on August 4, 2015.

Petitioner asserts that she has genuine and sincere religious beliefs that are contrary to immunization.  Petitioner seeks a religious exemption for the student pursuant to PHL §2164.

Respondent maintains that the denial of petitioner’s request for a religious exemption was proper because petitioner’s objections to immunizations are not based on genuinely and sincerely held religious beliefs, but rather are based on philosophical, political, scientific or sociological objections to immunizations.  Respondent further asserts that its determination was rational, not arbitrary or capricious, and in all respects proper.

Initially, I must address the procedural issues.  An appeal to the Commissioner is not the proper forum to adjudicate novel issues of constitutional law or to challenge the constitutionality of a statute or regulation (Appeal of C.S., 49 Ed Dept Rep 106, Decision No. 15,971; Appeal of J.A., 48 id. 118, Decision No. 15,810; Appeal of Keller, 47 id. 224, Decision No. 15,677).  A novel claim of constitutional dimension should properly be presented to a court of competent jurisdiction (Appeal of J.A., 48 Ed Dept Rep 118, Decision No. 15,810).  Therefore, to the extent that petitioner attempts to raise constitutional issues in regard to this appeal, I decline to consider such constitutional claims (see Appeal of a Student with a Disability, 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,169).

     By letter dated November 16, 2015, petitioner submitted a proposed response to respondent’s memorandum of law pursuant to 8 NYCRR §276.5.  Petitioner requests that I accept her additional document because it addresses “statements of fact” contained in respondent’s memorandum of law.  Respondent objects to petitioner’s submission for a number of reasons, including that it contains new allegations.  A memorandum of law should consist of arguments of law (8 NYCRR §276.4).  It may not be used to add belated assertions or exhibits that are not part of the pleadings (Appeal of Bruning and Coburn-Bruning, 48 Ed Dept Rep 84, Decision No. 15,799; Appeal of Wright, 47 id. 202, Decision No. 15,668).  To the extent respondent’s memorandum of law raises new factual allegations, I have not considered them.  Thus, I have not considered petitioner’s response thereto.  

     Turning to the merits, PHL §2164 prohibits a school from admitting a child without evidence that the child has received certain immunizations.  However, PHL §2164(9) provides as follows:

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 (see Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, et al., 116 FSupp2d 503; Appeal of K.N.N.M. and E.A.Y., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,410).  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 FSupp 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 FSupp2d 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 K.N.N.M. and E.A.Y., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,410; Appeal of C.S., 49 id. 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 an appeal to the Commissioner, a petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief (8 NYCRR §275.10; Appeal of Aversa, 48 Ed Dept Rep 523, Decision No. 15,936; Appeal of Hansen, 48 id. 354, Decision No. 15,884; Appeal of P.M., 48 id. 348, Decision No. 15,882).

     Upon careful consideration of the entire record, I find that petitioner has failed to meet her burden of establishing that her opposition to immunization stems from sincerely held religious beliefs.  I find that petitioner’s general statements are insufficient to establish the religious basis or origin of her beliefs (see Appeal of K.E., 48 Ed Dept Rep 54, Decision No. 15,792; Appeal of L.P., 46 id. 341, Decision No. 15,527; Appeal of J.F. and D.F., 45 id. 241, Decision No. 15,310).  Prior Commissioner’s decisions have generally held that mere citations to statements that are religious in nature, general statements about God, the perfection of the immune system, and citations to Biblical verses and passages, without more, are not sufficient to establish genuine and sincere religious beliefs against immunization (see e.g., Appeal of B.R. and M.R., 50 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,250; Appeal of I.M. and G.M., 50 id., Decision No. 16,164; Appeal of C.S., 50 id., Decision No. 16,163).

     I have previously held that individuals need not oppose medical treatment per se to qualify for a religious exemption, but must assert only that they believe in reactive as opposed to proactive medical treatment (Lewis, et al. v. Sobol, et al., 710 FSupp 506).  In this record, I note that the fact that petitioner would consent to medical treatment of a sick child is not necessarily determinative.  However, petitioner fails to explain how her religious beliefs allow medical treatment under certain circumstances but not others (see Appeal of D.M. and K.M., 55 Ed Dept Rep, Decision).

In support of her religious exemption request, petitioner alleges that she did not appeal the September 5, 2014 denial of her religious exemption request because:

[A]t the time ... the school year had already started and [the student] was already enrolled in an alternative pre-k program not associated with the school district.

Petitioner now alleges that she and her husband “are now legally separated” and “going through a divorce” and that she has “primary custody of the children and [is] solely responsible for their medical care, spiritual and educational growth.”  Petitioner further explains:

The philosophical statements that were made in the meeting with the district on September 2, 2014 were made by [the student’s] father.  My beliefs have always been and will be religiously based. 

However, according to the record – in particular, the statements contained in the petition and supporting documentation – petitioner’s religious beliefs appear to be based upon the same principles namely, that vaccines consist of “poison, man-made chemicals and toxins.”  Petitioner further elaborates in her petition that:

[S]eeking treatment for an illness or injury is a very different thing than allowing anyone to put vaccines and foreign proteins and substances into a healthy child that was created in God’s image.  

 

Petitioner’s statements generally refer to the perfection of God and/or the immune system which, as noted above, are insufficient to demonstrate a sincerely-held religious belief.  Accordingly, I find that respondent’s determination was rational, reasonable and consistent with the law.

Petitioner further alleges that the principal and respondent’s counsel were “demeaning, hostile and antagonistic at the June 9th meeting.”  Respondent denies this allegation and petitioner submits no evidence to support her claim.  Therefore, petitioner has failed to meet her burden of proving this claim.

While the record reflects that petitioner may sincerely object to immunizations, the crux of the issue is whether the reasons for her objections are religious or predominantly philosophical, personal, medical or ethical in nature (see Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools, et al., 701 FSupp2d 414, aff’d 500 Fed Appx. 16, cert. denied 133 SCt 1997).  The record as a whole lacks evidence of sincerely-held religious objections to immunizations.  Accordingly, I find that petitioner has failed to demonstrate that her opposition to immunization stems from sincerely-held religious beliefs or that respondent’s determination is unsupported by the record or otherwise arbitrary and capricious, or in violation of law (see Appeal of L.L., 54 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,670).  The appeal, therefore, must be dismissed.

     In light of this disposition, I need not consider the parties’ remaining contentions.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE