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Decision No. 17,531

Appeal of I.H., on behalf of her daughter L.O., from action of the New York City Department of Education regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,531

(October 31, 2018)

Zachary W. Carter, Esq., Corporation Counsel, attorneys for respondent, Stephen Kitzinger, Esq., of counsel

ELIA, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the New York City Department of Education (“DOE” or “respondent”) that her daughter L.O. (“the student”), is not entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the student was enrolled in respondent’s school district.  According to the record, petitioner submitted documentation requesting a religious exemption to the immunization requirements of PHL §2164 in or about November 2017.  Petitioner provided a form captioned: “Decision to Not Vaccinate My Child” dated December 16, 2016 as well as a document[1] entitled “Affidavit declaration asserting our genuine and sincere religious ‘Core Belief Systems’ and customs which are contrary to the immunization practices required by the public school to be imposed upon our minor children.”

By memorandum dated January 26, 2018, respondent’s health service coordinator (“coordinator”) denied petitioner’s request for a religious exemption, determining that the documentation she submitted was:

[I]nadequate to warrant an exemption and does not substantiate a finding that you hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to immunization.  [The student] has all of the required vaccines except for DTp#4, Polio#4, MMR#2, HepB#3, and varicella#2. 

The memorandum also informed petitioner of respondent’s appeal process, which included an interview with one of respondent’s health directors (“director”).

Petitioner appealed the determination and met with a director on February 7, 2018.  The record indicates that, during the meeting, petitioner was asked questions about her opposition to immunizations and the religious basis for her beliefs.  The record contains a written copy of the questions petitioner was asked as well as a typed summary of petitioner’s responses prepared by the director.  In her responses, petitioner stated that she requested a religious exemption because “the ingredients in vaccinations are impure and are made of foreign substances.  We as Aborigines [sic] people do not believe in putting anything foreign into the body.  We are spiritual people that believe in only the natural.”  Petitioner acknowledged that her children had received vaccinations in the past.  However, she explained that she “stopped vaccinating [her] children about 3 years ago,” and that she “now ... [knew her] rights.”  Petitioner further stated that she had “held this belief my whole life but did not know my rights.  Doctors pressured me and made me feel like I was breaking the law if I did not vaccinate.”  Petitioner also stated that she did not believe in medical intervention and believed “only [in] natural remedies.” 

By memorandum dated February 9, 2018, respondent denied petitioner’s appeal.  The memorandum informed petitioner that she could appeal to the Commissioner of Education within 30 days pursuant to Education Law §310, but that, during the appeal process, the student would not be permitted to remain in school.  This appeal ensued.  Petitioner’s request for interim relief was denied on March 6, 2018. 

Although petitioner’s specific contentions are unclear, petitioner generally asserts that she holds genuine and sincere religious beliefs that are contrary to immunization.  Petitioner seeks a religious exemption for the student pursuant to PHL §2164.

Respondent contends that petitioner has failed to specify the precise nature and origin of her beliefs sufficient to support a religious exemption and that its determination was rational, not arbitrary or capricious, and in all respects proper. 

Proof of immunization against certain diseases is generally required for a child to be admitted to school (PHL §2164[6]).  However, evidence of immunization is not required if a child’s parent or guardian holds genuine and sincere religious beliefs contrary to the mandated immunizations (PHL §2164[9]).

The determination of whether a petitioner qualifies for a religious exemption requires careful consideration of two factors: whether his or her purported beliefs are religious and, if so, whether such religious beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held (Farina v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, et al., 116 FSupp2d 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 District, 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 S.F. and E.R., 58 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,439; Appeal of T.R., 57 id., Decision No. 17,329; Appeal of H.A., 57 id., Decision No. 17,215).  A parent or guardian who seeks a religious exemption must submit a written and signed statement to the school district stating that the parent or guardian objects to the child’s immunization due to sincere and genuine religious beliefs which prohibit the immunization of the 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 the parent or guardian’s statements and may consider the parent or guardian’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 S.F. and E.R., 58 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,439; Appeal of D.G. and B.L., 57 id., Decision No. 17,345; Appeal of T.R., 57 id., Decision No. 17,329).

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 P.C. and K.C., 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,337; Appeal of Aversa, 48 id. 523, Decision No. 15,936; Appeal of Hansen, 48 id. 354, Decision No. 15,884).

Upon review of the record, I find that petitioner’s statements in her original exemption request and her petition are insufficient to establish the religious basis or origin of her beliefs (see Appeal of E.M., 55 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,918; Appeal of K.E., 48 id. 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).  Although not clear, petitioner’s request for a religious exemption includes phrases such as “sincere good faith reasonable,” “reasonable attempt for avoidance,” and “safe guards and protection.”  Petitioner’s religious exemption request states as follows:

We both [i.e., petitioner and her spouse], hereby affirm that we subscribe to ‘Core Beliefs System’ and Customs belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to Those arising from any human relation.  We, both ... further affirm that our belief is sincere and meaningful, and occupies basic and fundamental, core place in all of our family lives.  Parallel to that filled by the Al-Islamic religious beliefs in the Creator.  This belief causes us to request order relief exemption request from the mandatory school vaccination program.  This belief is not a political, sociological or philosophical view of a merely personal moral code [sic].[2]

Other than these conclusory and general statements, petitioner has not explained the nature of her religious beliefs.  For example, while petitioner indicates that she believes in a “core beliefs system,” she has not explained what this entails, or how these beliefs support her opposition to immunization.  Accordingly, I find that petitioner has failed to carry her burden of demonstrating 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 H.A., 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision 17,215; Appeal of L.L., 54 id., Decision No. 16,670).  The appeal, therefore, must be dismissed.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE

 

[1] Petitioner identified all of her children in this document; however, respondent’s denial of petitioner’s religious exemption request was solely for petitioner’s daughter L.O.  Therefore, this decision shall only address L.O.’s circumstances; to the extent that petitioner seeks an exception on behalf of her other children, petitioner has not pled sufficient facts to state a claim on their behalf.

 

[2] The final two sentences of this statement are also copied from the Delaware statute identified above (14 Del. C. § 131).