A federal court in New York ruled that Orthodox Jewish parents failed to prove that they qualified for a religious exemption from a state mandatory vaccination law for public and private school students.
Section 2164 of the New York Public Health Law (PHL) imposes a baseline requirement that school-aged children be immunized against certain enumerated diseases. In relevant part, the statute provides as follows:
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, in excess of fourteen days, without the [appropriate certificate by an administering physician] or some other acceptable evidence of the child's immunization against poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, varicella, hepatitis B, pertussis, tetanus, and, where applicable, Haemophilus influenza, meningococcal disease, and pneumococcal disease.
However, the PHL carves out two exemptions from this general requirement, namely: (i) a medical exemption for children whose pediatrician certifies that the required immunizations may be detrimental to their health, and (ii) a religious exemption. The religious exemption removes from the statute's purview "children whose parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to" the practice of vaccinating, and, as to them, requires no certificate of immunization as a prerequisite to their attendance at school.
A married couple (the "plaintiffs") enrolled their three daughters in a private Jewish school. The mother is a devout Orthodox Jew and has raised her three daughters in the Orthodox Jewish tradition. For reasons that she alleges are inexorably linked to her faith, she has not vaccinated her children and does not intend to do so. From 2010 to 2015, none of the daughters was vaccinated as required by the terms of the PHL because the mother applied for, and received, a religious exemption under the law.
In 2015, the school reevaluated its handling of religious exemptions, and made the process of exemption more intensive, as a result of a measles outbreak in another state. This outbreak caused many parents to question the school's preparedness for a similar event. The school determined that its enforcement of the PHL to be below the legal standard. In particular, school officials concluded that the school had not previously conducted any meaningful review of students' applications for religious exemptions, and that the school had simply "rubber stamped" such requests without conducting due diligence.
Accordingly, in 2015, the school began "strict enforcement" of the state immunization law by, for example, closely scrutinizing the reasons given by parents seeking religious exemptions for their children. School officials met with the plaintiffs, but concluded that they did not qualify for a religious exemption since the primary basis of their objection to vaccination was for health reasons.
The parents asked a court to issue an injunction compelling the school to admit their unvaccinated children. The court declined to do so, concluding that the parents had not demonstrated sincere religious objection to vaccinations. The court observed:
The mother reiterated her belief that the Torah commands her "to keep the body completely whole and pure without defilement." In this regard, she referred to Jewish beliefs against making cuttings in the flesh, but did not supply any specific quotations. She also reiterated her belief in prioritizing natural remedies over invasive medical treatments, stating that "any disease which can be treated naturally should be treated in a natural way … ."
The court did not doubt that the plaintiffs "held a genuine and sincere belief that they should not vaccinate their children." However, "careful consideration of the current record suggests that these beliefs were formed with a primary view toward the children's health, and not their religion. In this regard, the record clearly does not support a finding that Orthodox Judaism, even as interpreted by these plaintiffs, forbids the practice."
The court concluded:
The evidence shows that the plaintiffs are devoutly religious. However, the evidence connecting this faith to their objection to vaccinating their children is tenuous. Initially, as noted, the plaintiffs concede that there is no tenet of the Orthodox Jewish religion that prohibits the practice of vaccinating. In fact, the evidence shows that, of the approximately 1,700 Orthodox Jewish students at [the school] only a small minority of families interpret Judaic law as prohibiting the practice.
Further … there is evidence in this case to indicate that the plaintiffs hold a selective personal belief against the practice of vaccinating, as opposed to a religious belief. In this regard, the mother relies primarily on the Torah's commandment to guard the body against disease. However, the mother testified that she applies this rule flexibly; that it is her prerogative to determine the best method of guarding her children's bodies against disease; and that the full force of Jewish law should attach to her decisions … .
The selectivity with which the mother applies the Torah's commandments is also apparent in other parts of her testimony. For example, she has pierced ears, contradicting her purported belief against making cuttings in the skin. She ingests prenatal vitamins because they are doctor recommended, apparently without regard for whether vaccinations are similarly recommended. She permits Novocaine to be injected into her body by a dentist, undermining her objection to foreign impure substances being inoculated into the body. And, despite testifying that Jewish law forbids prophylactic remedies for healthy individuals, she applies sunblock to her daughters' skin to prevent adverse health effects of sun exposure.
In conclusion, the court found that the Plaintiffs had not sustained their burden of establishing that they hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs against the practice of vaccinating. As a result, an injunction was unwarranted.
What this means for churches
An increasing number of public elementary and secondary public schools have adopted policies requiring the vaccination of students. Many of these policies are based on state law. While religious exemptions are recognized in some states, many exemptions are conditional and, as this case demonstrates, will not always apply.
The parents' eligibility for a religious exemption in this case was denied for the following reasons: (1) Their opposition to medical interventions was selective. They considered some consistent with their religious faith, and some inconsistent with it. (2) They had difficulty pointing to specific passages in the Torah that prohibited vaccination. (3) Of the 1,700 students at the Jewish school their children attended, only three families expressed religious objection to vaccination. NM v. Hebrew Academy, 155 F.Supp.3d 247 (E.D.N.Y. 2016).