Freedom of Religion

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Does a state law requiring all primary and secondary school students to receive instruction regarding “AIDS” and drug abuse violate the constitutional rights of parents who are opposed to such instruction on the basis of their religious belief? No, concluded a New York state appeals court. The parents who challenged the law were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a devoutly religious group dedicated to strict adherence to Biblical teachings and separation from evil influences. Recognizing the sensitive nature of the curriculum, the law permits parents to exempt their children from in-class AIDS instruction by applying for an exemption and agreeing to provide suitable home instruction. Further, the law allows a child to be excused generally from the study of health and hygiene upon a verified petition by an authorized religious representative asserting that such study conflicts with the religion of the pupil’s parents. The parents found these protections inadequate and demanded a total and unconditional exemption. In rejecting the parents’ claim, the court observed that the constitutional right to freely exercise one’s religion may be restricted if the government “is advancing a compelling interest which is essential to the accomplishment of an overriding governmental purpose.” The court concluded that “there can be little doubt that education regarding the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse constitutes a compelling state interest, and the prevention of AIDS transmission has itself been defined as a substantial and compelling state interest.” Accordingly, the state can require AIDS and drug abuse instruction in the public schools even though such instruction may impinge upon the religious rights and sensibilities of some students. The court rejected the parents’ claim that their pious religious existence will better protect their children from the plagues of AIDS and drug abuse. It noted that “the Brethren is not an isolated community … immune from the known hazards of AIDS.” On the contrary, some of its members stray from its rigorous precepts, and such persons are then integrated into society at large ignorant of AIDS and its methods of transmission and prevention. Such persons, the court concluded, “will surely be at risk and will, undeniably, if infected, constitute a potentially grave risk to all with whom they come into intimate contact.” Ware v. Valley Stream High School District, 545 N.Y.S.2d 316 (1989).

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