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Decision No. 17,567

Appeal of S.L., on behalf of his child D.L., from action of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District regarding immunization.

Decision No. 17,567

(January 15, 2019)

Harris Beach PLLC, attorneys for respondent, Douglas E. Gerhardt, Esq., of counsel

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

According to the record, on December 13, 2017, petitioner submitted a “Request for Religious Exemption to Immunization Form” for D.L.  In the request, petitioner explained that immunizations caused the student to “become very sick with high fevers for a couple of weeks” and “when a procedure is harmful to the body, religiously one may not do it.”

Respondent denied the request by letter dated January 3, 2018, concluding that petitioner had not expressed genuine and sincere religious beliefs against immunization.  The denial letter informed petitioner that he “may request a medical exemption to immunizations as set forth under [PHL] Section 2164(8).”  This appeal ensued.  Petitioner’s request for interim relief was granted on February 12, 2018.

Petitioner asserts that he has genuine and sincerely held religious beliefs against immunizing D.L. and that respondent’s denial of his exemption request was incorrect and in error.

Respondent contends that the request was appropriately denied because petitioner failed to establish an entitlement to an exemption to immunization requirements based on religious beliefs.  Respondent asserts that petitioner’s objection to immunization is not based on genuinely and sincerely-held religious beliefs but, instead, is medically based and that petitioner should have sought a medical exemption, but failed to do so.  Respondent also maintains that petitioner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, warranting dismissal of the appeal.

I will first address respondent’s procedural argument.  Respondent’s contention that petitioner failed to exhaust his remedies at the school district level lacks merit.  As a prerequisite to an appeal pursuant to Education Law §310, a petitioner must exhaust administrative remedies when there is a legal mandate or applicable provision of law requiring exhaustion (Appeal of Jane Doe, 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,295; Appeal of a Student with a Disability, 44 id. 94, Decision No. 15,108; Appeal of Moultrie, 33 id. 89, Decision No. 12,987).  Respondent does not provide evidence that an appeal procedure was available to petitioner.  Notably, the denial letter indicated that the student would not receive instruction unless petitioner provided proof of immunizations.  Neither the denial letter nor the student health services policies provided by respondent reference a school district appeal procedure applicable to these circumstances and the record contains no evidence that respondent has adopted a policy mandating such appeals.  Therefore, I decline to dismiss the appeal for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Turning to the merits, 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 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).

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).

In his December 13, 2017 exemption request, petitioner explained that the student became ill with high fevers each time that he received immunizations.  Petitioner stated, “[w]hen a procedure is harmful to the body, religiously one may not do it as stated in the Bible ‘You should [guard] your soul’ in reference to the living soul ie [sic] the body.”  In his petition, petitioner asserts that “Jewish Law allows a parent to have the final say in the matter of vaccinations when they believe that the vaccination could harm the child” and that he believes vaccinations would harm the student “based on past experiences.”  In an affidavit submitted with his petition, petitioner stated that the student had strong reactions to his “baby vaccinations” and “became severely ill afterwards ....”  According to petitioner, his other children are vaccinated and there is no indication that petitioner has sought religious exemptions for them.

Upon careful consideration of the entire record, I find that petitioner has failed to meet his burden of establishing that his opposition to immunization stems from sincerely-held religious beliefs.  The record indicates that petitioner’s opposition to immunizations is based on health concerns due to the student’s adverse reactions to prior vaccinations.  Although petitioner makes general Biblical references, they are not sufficient to establish the religious basis or origin of his beliefs against immunization (Appeals of Students with Disabilities, 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,423; Appeal of K.E., 48 id. 54, Decision No. 15,792; Appeal of L.P., 46 id. 341, Decision No. 15,527).  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).  Here, petitioner’s articulated concerns are medical in nature.

Moreover, I note that petitioner has not sought exemptions for his other children who are immunized.  Although the fact that an individual’s children have been immunized in the past is generally not dispositive, here petitioner offers no explanation for a change of heart regarding immunization other than to explain D.L.’s medical issues.  The lack of explanation further supports respondent’s determination that petitioner’s opposition to immunization is premised on health concerns for this particular child.[1]  Accordingly, petitioner has not established an entitlement to a religious exemption from immunization for D.L., and the appeal must be dismissed.




[1] I note that respondent suggests a medical exemption “would more properly fit within the present circumstances” and that, if petitioner files such a request, respondent will consider it.