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Decision No. 17,650

Appeal of I.E., on behalf of her child J.T., from action of the New York City Department of Education regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,650

(June 10, 2019)

Zachary W. Carter, Esq., Corporation Counsel, attorneys for respondent, Elizabeth DeGori, Esq., of counsel

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

The student began attending school in respondent’s school district in September 2017.  At about that time, petitioner submitted a form requesting a religious exemption from immunization on behalf of the student in which she asserted, in relevant part, that “[o]ur child’s body is the temple of God, our famil[y’s] personal religious beliefs prohibit the injection of foreign substances into our bodies.”

By memorandum dated October 25, 2017, respondent’s health services coordinator (“coordinator”) denied petitioner’s request for a religious exemption, determining that petitioner failed to specify the nature and origin of her beliefs and failed to provide documentation to explain why the student’s prior vaccinations did not violate petitioner’s religious beliefs.  The memorandum also informed petitioner of the availability of respondent’s internal appeal process, which included an interview with one of respondent’s health directors, and further notified petitioner that if her appeal was denied, she could commence an appeal to the Commissioner pursuant to Education Law §310.

Petitioner appealed the determination and met with a health director.  The record contains a copy of a form containing the questions posed to petitioner during this meeting and petitioner’s hand-written responses to the questions.  In her hand-written responses, petitioner indicated that her personal religious beliefs prohibited the injection of foreign substances into the body, which is a “sacred space with the ability to heal itself from impurities, so vaccinations are not essential.”  She also stated that, while she has held such beliefs “[her] whole life,” the student was vaccinated in the past because petitioner was told by a doctor that vaccination was required in order to live in New York City.  Petitioner stated that “[i]f time were reversible we would never have vaccinated her.  We will not continue to do so.”

By memorandum dated January 9, 2018, respondent denied petitioner’s appeal.  This appeal ensued.  Petitioner’s request for interim relief was denied on February 9, 2018.

Petitioner argues that she holds genuine and sincerely-held religious beliefs in opposition to immunization and that respondent’s determination to the contrary was arbitrary and capricious.

Respondent contends that petitioner failed to establish a sincere religious belief contrary to vaccinations that would support a religious exemption.

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).  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).

As noted above, in her October 27, 2017 memorandum denying petitioner’s exemption request, the coordinator noted that petitioner “failed to provide documentation which explains why prior vaccinations did not violate your religious beliefs.”    Similar to her written statements in response to respondent’s appeal questions, petitioner explains in her petition that, although she has always opposed immunizations based on her “religious beliefs,” she initially vaccinated the student because a physician told her the student had to be immunized in order to live in New York State.  According to petitioner, she later discovered that this was not true and stopped vaccinating the student.

I have previously held that the fact that a petitioner’s child was immunized in the past is not necessarily dispositive in determining whether the individual has genuine and sincere religious beliefs (Lewis, et al. v. Sobol, et al., 710 FSupp 506; Appeal of S.F. and E.R., 58 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,439; Appeal of L.T. and J.T., 57 id., Decision No. 17,181).  However, it does have a bearing on the assessment of the sincerity of the alleged religious beliefs (Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools, et al., 701 FSupp2d 414, aff’d 500 Fed Appx 16, cert. denied, 133 SCt 1997).  Here, in an October 25, 2017 memorandum denying petitioner’s exemption request, the coordinator stated that petitioner failed to provide documentation to explain why prior vaccines did not violate her religious beliefs.  I note that the record indicates that petitioner has offered an explanation that she previously vaccinated the student due to her lack of knowledge of the availability of a religious exemption.

However, I need not decide the issue of whether petitioner provided a sufficient explanation on this issue because I find that, on this record, petitioner has failed to meet her burden of proving that her opposition to immunization stems from sincerely-held religious beliefs.  Respondent explains that it found petitioner’s contentions to be “too general and non-specific to support a sincere religious opposition” to immunization.  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 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).

On this record, I cannot conclude that respondent’s determination was arbitrary or capricious.  Petitioner’s request states, in pertinent part, that:

Our child’s body is the temple of God.  Our families [sic] personal religious beliefs prohibit the injection of foreign substances into our bodies.  To inject into our child any substance which would alter the state into which she was born would be to criticize[.][1]

While I do not doubt that petitioner is opposed to immunizations, I cannot find on this record that these general statements regarding the perfection of the human body satisfy petitioner’s burden to demonstrate that her 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).

Thus, the record, as a whole, lacks evidence that petitioner holds a sincerely-held religious objection to immunizations.  Accordingly, I cannot find respondent’s determination that petitioner failed to demonstrate genuine and sincerely-held religious beliefs in opposition to immunization to be arbitrary or capricious.  The appeal, therefore, must be dismissed.

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

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE

 

[1] The text of the religious exemption request ends abruptly at this point.  According to respondent, petitioner’s request consisted of a single page, even though this page is labeled “Page 1 of 4.”