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Decision No. 15,957

Appeal of H.K. and T.K., on behalf of their son M.K., from action of the Board of Education of the Indian Lake Central School District and David Snide, Principal, regarding immunization.

Decision No. 15,957

(July 23, 2009)

Judge and Duffy, attorneys for respondents, Monica A. Duffy, Esq., of counsel

Petitioners appeal the determination of the Board of Education of the Indian Lake Central School District (“respondent”) that their son, M.K., is not entitled to an exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be dismissed.

M.K. participates in the Bright Beginnings Pre-K Program (“Program”).  According to the district’s superintendent, the Program is a community pre-kindergarten literacy-based program for four-year-old children offered by the Town of Indian Lake Library three mornings a week.  On Monday and Friday mornings, the Program takes place at the library.  On Wednesday mornings, the Program is conducted on the premises of the Indian Lake School (“School”), which is the district’s only school building for grades kindergarten through 12, and joins the kindergarten class there from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.  It appears from the record that M.K. is permitted to attend the Monday and Friday session of the Program, but not the Wednesday session at the School.

On September 21, 2008, petitioners submitted a “Request for Religious Exemption to Immunization Form” (“Form”) for M.K.[1]   Petitioners stated that they hold “genuine, deeply felt religious beliefs against the vaccinations being proposed” and requested that M.K. be allowed to enroll in the Program, citing PHL §2164(9).  They also stated that they assume full responsibility for M.K.’s health.

The School’s principal met with H.K. regarding petitioners’ submission.[2]  According to the principal, during that meeting H.K. discussed in great detail an alleged conspiracy with the pharmaceutical and medical industries to immunize children and allegations of immunizations leading to autism.  The principal states that he reiterated to H.K. that an exemption to immunization must be based on genuinely and sincerely held religious beliefs and that petitioners needed to provide additional information regarding their beliefs.

By letter dated September 22, 2008, the principal denied petitioners’ request but offered to review their request again if they provided more information.  The additional information he suggested included: a letter from an authorized representative of the church, temple or religious institution they attended; literature from such institution explaining a doctrine or beliefs that prohibit immunization; any writings relied on in formulating religious beliefs that prohibit immunization; or a copy of their statements to healthcare providers explaining their religious basis for refusing immunization.

By letter dated September 23 and Form dated September 25, 2008, petitioners responded to the principal.  In the letter, they first stated that it is unconstitutional to limit religious exemptions to those only in recognized religious organizations.  They then explained their religious beliefs as follows:

  • We believe in God.
  • We believe Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation,” and by “Him all things were created.” And “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” Collossians 1:16,17
  • We believe health is an expression of God’s sovereignty as a promise of His Word.
  • We believe that just as there are spiritual consequences of “sin” in our lives, there are also physical consequences of “fear” and other mental hindrances.
  • We believe strongly that the introduction of man-made attenuated viral or bacteriological serums, largely based upon fear of the body being overwhelmed by disease, betrays a lack of understanding of the body’s innate, God-given and miraculous ability to heal itself.
  • We believe “life is in the blood,” as Holy Scripture teaches, and any immunization would compromise the blood.
  • We believe our children must have the opportunity to face life’s adversities with the proper tools.  We know our Creator has endowed us with precisely such tools, hence, in keeping with God-given and inalienable rights, as enshrined and guaranteed in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, we plan to raise our children in accordance with the Word of God and to make prudent healthcare choices to safeguard their well-being.

By letter dated October 1, 2008, petitioners’ pastor from Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church submitted a reference letter stating that petitioners’ beliefs are grounded in their abiding faith in Jesus and that together with the Church, they believe that the parents are ultimately responsible for the education and welfare of their own children.  The principal avers that in a subsequent conversation, the pastor told him that the Catholic Church does not support religious exemptions to immunizations.

By letter dated October 21, 2008, the principal again denied petitioners’ request for a religious exemption for M.K. based on petitioners’ two forms dated September 21 and 25, 2008, their letter and the pastor’s letter. The principal also considered his conversation with H.K. in which H.K. had explained his views on immunization.  In addition, the principal considered conversations with the school nurse and the Program teacher, who told him that petitioners had also expressed to them conspiratorial views on immunization.  The principal concluded that petitioners’ views expressed philosophical, rather than religious, beliefs.  This appeal ensued.  Petitioners’ request for interim relief was denied on November 26, 2008.

Petitioners assert that the principal acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying their request for a religious exemption.  Petitioners seek a determination permitting M.K. to participate in the Program on Wednesday mornings at School.

Respondent asserts that the principal’s determination  was not arbitrary or capricious because petitioners’ purported objections to immunization are not based on genuinely and sincerely held religious beliefs.

The appeal must be dismissed as moot.  The Commissioner will only decide matters in actual controversy and will not render a decision on a state of facts which no longer exist or which subsequent events have laid to rest (Appeal of Tine, 46 Ed Dept Rep 579, Decision No. 15,600; Appeal of N.C., 46 id. 358, Decision No. 15,532; Appeal of Lombardo, 46 id. 282, Decision No. 15,508).  According to the record, the Program is for four-year-old children and M.K. will be ineligible to attend the Program during the 2009-2010 school year since he turned five years old on July 10, 2009.

Even if the appeal were not dismissed as moot, it would be dismissed on the merits.  PHL §2164(7)(a) provides that “No principal, teacher, owner or person in charge of a school shall permit any child to be admitted to such school, or to attend such school . . .” without a certificate or some other acceptable evidence of a child’s immunization.  However, parents may apply for a medical exemption under PHL §2164(8) or a religious exemption under §2164(9).  PHL §2164(9) provides that immunization:

. . .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.

Under PHL §2164(1)(a), school “means and includes any public, private or parochial child caring center, day nursery, day care agency, nursery school, kindergarten, elementary, intermediate or secondary school.”  In this case, the Program is conducted jointly in the kindergarten class in the public school one day a week.  Accordingly, I find that M.K. was attending the kindergarten class within the intended meaning of PHL §2164 and it was the principal’s obligation under §2164(7) to inquire about M.K.’s immunization status.

The determination of whether petitioners qualify for a religious exemption under PHL §2164(9) 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 (seeFarina 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 Dist., 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 K.E., 48 Ed Dept Rep 54, Decision No. 15,792; Appeal of R.P. and R.P., 47 id. 124, Decision No. 15,648; Appeal of J.F. and D.F., 45 id. 241, Decision No. 15,310).  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 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 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 L.K., 45 Ed Dept Rep 10, Decision No. 15,243; Appeal of D.K., 44 id. 47, Decision No. 15,094; Appeal of C.R. and C.R., 44 id. 39, Decision No. 15,091).

In an appeal to the Commissioner, petitioners have the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioners seek relief (8 NYCRR §275.10; Appeal of Brown, 46 Ed Dept Rep 584, Decision No. 15,602; Appeals of Hubbard, 46 id. 533, Decision No. 15,585; Appeal of Darrow, 46 id. 182, Decision No. 15,477).

Among other things, petitioners state that they “believe that ‘life is in the blood’” and that “any immunization would compromise the blood;” however, they also stated that “just as there are spiritual consequences of ‘sin’ in our lives, there are also physical consequences of ‘fear’ and other mental hindrances,” and “the introduction of man-made attenuated viral or bacteriological serums, largely based upon fear of the body being overwhelmed by disease, betrays a lack of understanding of the body’s innate, God-given and miraculous ability to heal itself.”  I find that these statements, along with all those in petitioners’ September 23, 2008 letter, are insufficient to articulate a religious basis or the origin of petitioners’ beliefs against immunization (seeAppeal 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 D.K., 44 id. 47, Decision No. 15,094).  Moreover, I find that H.K.’s statements regarding an alleged conspiracy by the pharmaceutical and medical industry to immunize children and theories about immunizations causing autism, which petitioners failed to address or deny in their reply, suggest that petitioners’ beliefs are philosophical, medical and/or personal, rather than as deeply held religious beliefs.  While petitioners believe strongly in their own authority to determine matters of their children’s health, and, while they made some statements that were religious in nature, I find that the record before me does not support petitioners’ contention that they hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs against immunization.  Accordingly, I find that petitioners have failed to establish that the principal’s determination was arbitrary or capricious.



[1] Petitioners actually erroneously requested an exemption for their other son, T.K., but admitted that was an inadvertent error since T.K. was only two years old and thus too young for the Program.

[2] The record is unclear whether this meeting occurred before or after the principal’s denial.