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Decision No. 16,918

Appeal of E.M., on behalf of her son L.C., from action of the Board of Education of the Gates-Chili Central School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 16,918

(June 29, 2016)

Harris Beach PLLC, attorneys for respondent, David W. Oakes, Esq., of counsel

ELIA, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the determination of the Board of Education of the Gates-Chili Central School District (“respondent”) that her son, L.C. (the “student”), is not entitled to a religious exemption from the immunization requirements of Public Health Law (“PHL”) §2164.  The appeal must be dismissed. 

Prior to the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, petitioner registered the student in respondent’s school district.  Upon enrollment, petitioner provided a signed “Declaration of Vaccination Exemption” (“declaration”) form, which was notarized on November 3, 2011, and states as follows:

Pursuant to Senate Bill #942, Section 1, Chapter 7 under the ‘EXEMPTION FROM IMMUNIZATION,’ I hereby declare that I [petitioner], as the parent of [the student], a minor, do herby withhold my consent and let it be known that said minor is exempted from any and all medical procedures (e.g.) blood transfusions, vaccinations, inoculations, PPD (tine test), tetanus shots, etc. unless I give my personal permission, on the grounds that these artificial, unproven and unsafe medical processes are contrary to our religious beliefs. 

Petitioner further states:

We are Muslims and our religion is Islam. As registered members of the Nation of Islam, we do not practice or participate in the injections of vaccines and inoculations....  

Petitioner’s declaration form also cites to several Biblical verses and passages in support of her opposition to immunizations.

By letter dated August 14, 2015, the school principal notified petitioner that her exemption request was denied because “you have failed to provide sufficient information detailing that you have a sincerely held religious belief that warrants an exemption to immunization or that there are genuine medical reasons that prevent your child from receiving some or all [of the] required immunizations.”  Petitioner was further informed that the declaration form she submitted did not satisfy the criteria for a religious exemption from immunization because “it appears to have been executed and notarized in November 2011, almost four years ago.  The document does not make clear whether your request is made on your religious beliefs or medical reasons” and “it does not state what your personal religious beliefs are ... or the medical condition that prevents such immunization.” 

Thereafter, according to the record, the student started attending classes in respondent’s school district due to an alleged error by school officials who were unaware that petitioner’s immunization exemption request had been denied. By letter dated October 5, 2015, petitioner was informed that she would need to complete an application for a religious exemption from immunization requirements and was provided the required form and directed to return the completed form to respondent by October 13, 2015. 

Petitioner completed the religious exemption form, on which she largely repeated and referred to the contents of her original declaration form.

By letter dated October 13, 2015, respondent denied petitioner’s religious exemption request, finding that petitioner failed “to provide in [her] request any statement of or explanation of a genuine and sincerely held religious belief,” that petitioner’s statements are not religious but rather statements “of opinion about [petitioner’s] view of the efficacy of immunization,” and petitioner’s statements do not establish a genuine and sincerely held religious belief against immunization. Petitioner was further informed that she could commence an appeal to the Commissioner of Education pursuant to Education Law §310 within thirty days of respondent’s decision. This appeal ensued.  

Petitioner asserts that she has 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’s objections to immunization are not based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Respondent further asserts that its determination was rational, not arbitrary or capricious, and in all respects proper.

Initially I note that an appeal to the Commissioner is not the proper forum to adjudicate novel issues of constitutional law or to challenge the constitutionality of a statute or regulation (Appeal of C.S., 49 Ed Dept Rep 106, Decision No. 15,971; Appeal of J.A., 48 id. 118, Decision No. 15,810; Appeal of Keller, 47 id. 224, Decision No. 15,677).  A novel claim of constitutional dimension should properly be presented to a court of competent jurisdiction (Appeal of J.A., 48 Ed Dept Rep 118, Decision No. 15,810).  Therefore, to the extent that petitioner attempts to raise such constitutional issues in this appeal, I decline to consider such constitutional claims.

Turning to the merits, PHL §2164 prohibits a school from admitting a child without evidence that the child has received certain immunizations.  However, PHL §2164(9) provides as follows:

This section 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.

The determination of whether petitioner qualifies for a religious exemption requires the careful consideration of two factors:  whether petitioner’s 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; Appeal of K.N.N.M. and E.A.Y., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,410).  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 K.N.N.M. and E.A.Y., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,410; Appeal of C.S., 49 id. 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/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 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 petitioner’s statements and may consider petitioner’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 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 Aversa, 48 Ed Dept Rep 523, Decision No. 15,936; Appeal of Hansen, 48 id. 354, Decision No. 15,884; Appeal of P.M., 48 id. 348, Decision No. 15,882).

Although the record indicates that respondent erroneously allowed petitioner’s son to attend school in the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year notwithstanding that petitioner’s exemption request had been previously denied, I note that, except in limited circumstances not applicable here, equitable estoppel does not apply against a government subdivision (Parkview Assoc. v. City of New York, 71 NY2d 274; Hamptons Hosp. v. Moore, 52 NY2d 88; Appeal of K.E., 48 Ed Dept Rep 54, Decision No. 15,792;  Appeal of Barbara D. and James D., Jr., 34 id. 118, Decision No. 13,352).  Therefore, equitable estoppel does not prevent respondent from excluding the student.

After reviewing the record, I find that petitioner’s general statements -- that “we are made in God’s image and likeness and the injection of toxic chemicals and foreign proteins into the bloodstream is a violation of God’s directive to keep the body/temple holy and free from impurities” and “our religious beliefs are that we accept God’s warning not to mix the blood of man with the blood of animals, and many vaccines are produced in animal tissues. Our religious convictions are predicated on the belief that all life is sacred” -- are insufficient to establish the religious basis or origin of her beliefs (see Appeal 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 J.F. and D.F., 45 id. 241, Decision No. 15,310).  In support of her request petitioner specifically states that “all immunizations and inoculations are harmful to the human physiology and do not protect anyone from disease” and “These immunizations and inoculations are artificial, unproven and unsafe medical processes and are contrary to our religious, as well as ethical and personal beliefs.”  Such general statements do not, in and of themselves, establish a sincerely held religious objection to immunization (see e.g. Appeal of O.M. and R.M., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,414; Appeal of L.S., 50 id., Decision No. 16,180), and instead suggest medical and philosophical objections to immunization (see Appeal of K.N.N.M. and E.A.Y., 52 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,410).  Furthermore, petitioner fails to provide any documentation which attempts to establish a nexus between the required vaccinations and her claimed religious objection to animal blood or tissues (see Appeal of B.O-G., 51 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,294).  The record indicates that petitioner was given numerous opportunities to explain the basis of her beliefs but failed to do so. Accordingly, I find that respondent’s determination was rational, reasonable and consistent with law.

While the record reflects that petitioner may sincerely object to immunizations, the crux of the issue is whether the reasons for her objections are religious or predominantly philosophical, personal, medical or ethical in nature (see Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools, et al., 701 FSupp2d 414 [EDNY 2010], aff’d 500 Fed Appx. 16 [2d Cir. 2012], cert. denied 133 S.Ct. 1997 [2013]).  The record as a whole lacks evidence of sincerely held religious objections to immunizations.  Accordingly, I find that petitioner has failed to demonstrate 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 L.L., 54 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,670).  The appeal, therefore, must be dismissed.

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