New York State School Boards Association

Religious exemption to immunization denied

by Kimberly A. Fanniff

On Board Online • January 25, 2016

By Kimberly A. Fanniff
Senior Staff Counsel

Under state public health law, school administrators have authority to grant or deny parental requests for exemptions to immunization requirements. In order to be granted a religious exemption to immunization a parent must show genuine and sincere religious beliefs contrary to immunization. School administrators must make the difficult determination whether the parents' beliefs are in fact religious and, if so, whether those beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held. In Appeal of D.M. and K.M., the commissioner of education upheld a district's denial of a religious exemption based on the parents' inconsistent statements regarding their opposition to immunization.

The parents sought the exemption explaining that they believe inoculations that are not in accordance with spiritual purposes are contrary to God. The district requested further documentation explaining why the parents were requesting the exemption and a description of the religious principles that guide the petitioners' objections. They also asked whether petitioners' object to all immunizations and, if not, the religious basis that prohibits a particular immunization.

After examining the supplemental material, the district denied the request. It said the parents failed to explain the "critical contradiction" that the student had all required vaccines except the one for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). In an appeal before the district, the parents explained they do not object to all immunizations but it was their belief it was not necessary to expose the student to the MMR vaccine because rates of transmission for those diseases are negligible. But they further stated that they would vaccinate the child if they were to travel to regions with high transmission rates for those diseases. Consequently, the district denied their appeal.

The commissioner rejected the parents' appeal on similar grounds, finding that there was a lack of evidence that the petitioners' objection to immunization was religiously based.

The commissioner noted that the petitioners repeatedly stated their beliefs were religious but failed to explain how their religious beliefs guided their objections to immunization. By themselves, general statements conveying an objection to ingesting or injecting substances in a healthy body as contrary to "God's will" fall short of establishing a sincerely held religious objection. Such statements suggest medical or philosophical objections to immunization.

Lastly, the commissioner rejected the parents' claim they object to vaccinations which contain any beef or beef by-products. While consumption of such products may be in violation of their religious beliefs, petitioners did not provide any documentation to establish the MMR vaccine was linked to or derived from these objectionable elements.

Parental requests with similar contradictory statements may also be rejected under this precedent.

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