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Decision No. 17,572

Appeal of M.S., on behalf of her children C.L. and K.L., from action of Yeshiva of Spring Valley regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,572

(January 25, 2019)

Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, attorneys for respondent, Motty Shulman, Esq., of counsel

ELIA, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of Yeshiva of Spring Valley (“respondent”) that her children, C.L. and K.L. (“the students”), are not entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be sustained in part and remanded.

According to the record, petitioner’s daughter, C.L., began attending first grade at respondent’s school in September 2016.  In December 2016, apparently in response to the school’s request for immunization records, petitioner submitted a signed and notarized copy of the State Education Department’s “Request for Religious Exemption to Immunization Form” (“form”) on behalf of C.L., a signed statement expressing her beliefs, and a Rabbinical statement.  Meanwhile, petitioner inquired about registering her younger child, K.L., to begin prekindergarten at respondent’s school in September 2017.  In response to the school’s acknowledgement of her inquiry and direction to submit an application and other documentation, including immunization records, petitioner sent the application and a form for K.L. along with the same statement of beliefs that she had previously submitted for C.L.  In March 2017, respondent notified petitioner that K.L. was accepted into respondent’s prekindergarten program for the September 2017 term.

On August 29, 2017, petitioner received an email informing her that respondent “doesn’t approve religious exemptions and your children will not be able to be admitted to Yeshiva of Spring Valley.”  Attached to the email was the form that petitioner had submitted for C.L.  Respondent denied petitioner’s request for a religious exemption by marking the “Denied” box on the form.  The section in which to set forth the reasons for the denial was blank.  This appeal ensued.  Petitioner’s request for interim relief was denied on September 18, 2017.

Petitioner asserts that her children are entitled to an exemption from immunizations based on her sincerely held religious beliefs.

Respondent contends that petitioner’s children are not entitled to a religious exemption because petitioner has failed to establish a genuine and sincere religious belief for her opposition to immunizations.  Respondent asserts that petitioner’s claim is based on medical considerations rather than a sincerely held religious belief.

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 required 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 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 District, 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 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 his or her child’s immunization due to sincere and genuine religious beliefs which prohibit the immunization of his or her 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 consideration of the entire record, I find that the appeal must be remanded based upon deficiencies with respondent’s review process which, under the circumstances, deprived petitioner of fair consideration of her religious exemption request.  Specifically, the record reflects that respondent did not fully consider petitioner’s request.  Respondent’s August 29, 2017 email transmitting its denial of petitioner’s request for a religious exemption stated categorically that it “doesn’t approve religious exemptions ....”  The attached request form submitted by petitioner merely had the “Denied” box checked with no explanation of any basis for such denial.  There is no indication that respondent made any attempt to consider petitioner’s request, engage in further examination of petitioner’s statement of religious belief, or assess the credibility or sincerity of her statements.  Respondent, for the first time in this appeal, now asserts in its perfunctory answer that petitioner’s claim is “founded on medical or purely moral considerations, scientific or secular theories, or philosophical and personal beliefs that do not meet the requirements” of PHL §2164.

Respondent further contends that “[p]etitioner’s claims are without any basis in Jewish law or tradition.  Indeed, it is well accepted in Jewish law and tradition that the biblical obligation to guard one’s health includes taking necessary preventive measures such as immunization.”  Aside from its own assertions, however, respondent fails to identify any specific examples to support its characterization of petitioner’s beliefs.  As noted, there is no indication on the record before me that respondent requested any supporting documents or other information from petitioner to further explain or clarify her religious beliefs.  Although, on a proper record, a request for a religious exemption may be denied, in this case, I find that respondent did not develop a record sufficient to conclude that petitioner was not entitled to such religious exemption under PHL §2164(9).  Rather, it appears that, as stated in the August 29, 2017 email, respondent merely “doesn’t approve religious exemptions.”

I remind respondent that the religious exemption set forth in PHL §2164(9) applies to private and parochial schools (Bowden v. Iona Grammar School, 284 AD2d 357; Appeal of D.W. and N.W., 50 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,144; Appeal of L.S., 47 id. 476, Decision No. 15,758).  I also remind respondent to consider all requests for religious exemptions in a manner consistent with applicable law and regulation (Appeal of D.G. and B.L., 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,345).  Given that this is not the first time I have reminded respondent of such deficiencies, I am directing my Office of Student Support Services to provide guidance and technical assistance to respondent to ensure that its procedures related to the consideration of requests for religious exemptions are consistent with applicable law and regulations in accordance with this decision.

I, therefore, remand this case to respondent to fully comply with the procedural requirements of PHL §2146 and determine, based upon an examination of petitioner’s beliefs, whether or not C.L. and K.L. are entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements of PHL §2164 in conformity with all applicable law and regulations and consistent and in accordance with this decision and order and, in making such determination, respondent shall consider all relevant information submitted by petitioner.  In light of this disposition, I need not consider the parties’ remaining contentions.

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED AND REMANDED.

IT IS ORDERED that respondent make a determination in accordance with this decision and order as to whether or not C.L. and K.L. are entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of PHL §2164, and that, in making such determination, respondent shall consider all relevant information submitted by petitioner.

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