Skip to main content

Search Google Appliance

Search Google Appliance

Decision No. 17,634

Appeal of a STUDENT WITH A DISABILITY, by her parents, from action of the Board of Education of the Shenendehowa Central School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,634

(May 2, 2019)

Law Office of Kathryn McCary, attorneys for respondent, Kathryn McCary, Esq., of counsel

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

Petitioners enrolled the student in respondent’s district prior to the 2018-2019 school year.  On June 19, 2018, petitioners requested a religious exemption on behalf of the student.

In a letter dated July 12, 2018, respondent’s director of policy and community development (“director”) indicated that respondent required additional information in the form of “supporting documents” to consider petitioner’s request and requested that petitioners submit such information.

Petitioners thereafter submitted a letter from the student’s pediatrician, as well as a more fulsome statement of their religious beliefs, to respondent on or about August 8, 2018.[1]

In a letter dated September 14, 2018, respondent denied petitioners’ request for a religious exemption from the requirements of PHL §2164.

According to the record, on September 21, 2018, the student’s father spoke with the director by telephone and requested that she reconsider petitioners’ request.  The record contains another letter from petitioners dated September 21, 2018 in which petitioners set forth a statement of their religious beliefs.[2]

In a letter dated September 28, 2018, the director indicated that she and the student’s father “spoke on September 21, 2018” and that petitioners’ request for a religious exemption remained denied.  The letter gave petitioners 14 school days from the date of the letter to submit proof that the student received all required vaccinations and indicated that, absent such proof, the student would be excluded from respondent’s schools on October 12, 2018.

The record contains a letter dated October 5, 2018 in which the director stated that “per [petitioners’] request,” she had “reviewed in detail all of the information” petitioners submitted and respondent’s denial of the religious exemption request “still stands.”  This appeal ensued.  Petitioners’ request for interim relief was denied on November 27, 2018.

Petitioners contend that their objections to immunizations are based on genuine and sincerely-held religious beliefs and seek a determination that the student is entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of PHL §2164.[3]

Respondent argues that its determination was rational and must be upheld.  Respondent indicates that petitioners’ religious exemption request contains general language and assertions and, moreover, is primarily health-based.  Respondent also asserts that petitioners’ sincerity is suspect because respondent received a “remarkably similar” religious exemption request from another district resident during the fall of 2018.

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 petitioners qualify for a religious exemption requires the careful consideration of two factors:  whether petitioners’ 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).  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 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 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 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 documentation (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 petitioners’ statements and may consider petitioners’ 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 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).

 

First, I must address respondent’s contention that petitioners’ religious exemption request is not credible because respondent received another request in the fall of 2018 containing substantially similar language.  Respondent has provided the language of the second request and, upon review, I agree that it is substantially similar to petitioners’ August 8, 2018 written statement.  Respondent surmises that petitioners and the author of the similar statement “received this specific language from a third party, but [were] told to personalize it before submitting the request for exemption ....”  While I agree with respondent that its receipt of two substantially similar religious exemption requests in the fall of 2018 raises questions as to credibility, respondent has provided no evidence that petitioners’ request was, for example, forged or copied.[4]  Therefore, any finding in this respect would be speculative and I decline to dismiss the appeal on this ground.

Nevertheless, upon careful consideration of the entire record, I find that petitioners have failed to meet their burden of establishing that respondent’s determination was arbitrary or capricious.  The director explains in an affidavit that she denied petitioners’ religious exemption request on two principal grounds; first, that petitioners’ statements were general in nature and, second, that petitioners’ concerns appeared to be more health-based than religious in origin. 

With respect to the general nature of petitioners’ allegations, I have 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 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).  Petitioners’ original exemption request dated June 19, 2018 declared that they decided not to vaccinate “based on our sincere religious beliefs that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit who is within us.”  Similarly, in their August 8, 2018 statement, petitioners indicated that they “believe our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit” and, quoting scripture, that “[i]f anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him.  For the temple of God is holy which temple you are.”  The September 21, 2018 statement contains similar assertions.  While I do not doubt that petitioners are opposed to immunizations, I cannot find on this record that these general statements regarding the perfection of the human body satisfy petitioners’ burden to demonstrate that their opposition to immunization is based upon sincerely-held religious beliefs (see Appeal of E.P. and L.P., 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,310).

Further, the record supports respondent’s determination that petitioners’ concerns with immunizations are primarily health-based.  Petitioners’ original exemption request, after generally indicating that their belief is grounded in the perfection of the human body, stated that “[t]here are many uncertainties about vaccines causing side effects in the body,” referring to vaccines as “potential hazards.”  Similarly, petitioners’ August 8, 2018 written statement indicated that petitioners believe it to be their “responsibility to protect [their] physical bodies against unclean food and injections,” and that vaccines contain “hazardous substances” such as “viruses, neurotoxins, [and] animal parts ....”  The September 21, 2018 statement contained similar assertions, including allegations that vaccines contain “unclean substances” which “defile our bodies.”  While objection to vaccine ingredients may, in some cases, stem from religious beliefs (see Appeal of N.A., 58 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,458), on this record I cannot find that respondent’s determination that petitioners’ concerns were primarily health-based to be arbitrary or capricious.[5]

Although petitioners may genuinely object to vaccination, I find that, on this record, petitioners have failed to demonstrate that their opposition to immunization stems from sincerely-held religious beliefs or that respondent’s determination is unsupported by the record, arbitrary, or capricious (see Appeal of E.P. and L.P., 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,310; Appeal of L.L., 54 id., Decision No. 16,670).  The appeal, therefore, must be dismissed.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE


[1] Petitioners also indicate that they submitted a letter from the student’s preschool to respondent, a copy of which they have not submitted on appeal.   The director indicates that the district received the “statement from [the student’s] pediatrician” and the August 8, 2018 statement and does not indicate whether the district received the statement from the teacher.  I need not decide whether the teacher’s statement was, in fact, submitted or supports petitioners’ claims, however, as petitioners state in the petition that neither the pediatrician nor the teacher’s statements are “pertinent to establishing the religious nature of the petitioners[’] opposition to vaccinations.”

 

[2] It is unclear whether this submission was requested by respondent.  However, in its papers, respondent addresses the merits of this letter.  Therefore, any objection to its consideration on appeal has been waived.

 

[3] Petitioners also, under the heading “Request for a Stay,” assert that exclusion from school will have a detrimental effect on the student, who receives special education and related services from respondent’s district.  In light of the fact that interim relief was denied on November 27, 2018, this claim is moot and need not be addressed herein.

 

[4] In this regard, the director states that she “ha[s] not been able to identify any [i]nternet resource from which this language might have been copied ....”

 

[5] Although petitioners do not argue that it supports their position, I note that the statement by the student’s pediatrician, submitted by respondent on appeal, indicates in relevant part that the student “does not receive any vaccinations,” and, further, that the student’s siblings “are no longer receiving vaccines due to parent refusal.”