Florida Case History on Religious Exemption

Department of Health vs. Curry – 1998

A religious exemption to mandated vaccination requirements is explicitly provided for in Section 3 (a) of Florida Statute 232.032

(3) The provisions of this section shall not apply if: (a) The parent or guardian of the child objects in writing that the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices.

In 1998, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s judgment regarding a mother’s request for a religious exemption for her daughter. Specifically, the Court declared that when a student’s parent or guardian objects to vaccination requirements on religious grounds, the Department of Health is prohibited from inquiring into the bona fides of the objection.

In August 1996, Sara Curry wrote a letter to the Holmes County Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services* objecting to the vaccination of her daughter against communicable diseases as a condition precedent to her admission to public school for the upcoming school year on the ground that the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with her religious beliefs and requested a religious exemption. The Department responded that her letter was legally insufficient to grant a religious exemption from vaccinations. In addition to being denied the exemption to which she was entitled, Curry’s daughter was being denied admission to public school because she had not received the mandated vaccinations. Curry was told by the Department that she could “request an administrative hearing” if she was not satisfied with their decision.

Instead of requesting an administrative hearing, Curry filed an action in trial court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Curry effectively asked the court for an interpretation of the pertinent language in this statute that guarantees religious rights.

Curry asserted that, according to the plain language of Section 232.032, her daughter was entitled to exemption from the mandatory vaccination provision upon receipt by the Department of a written objection, for religious reasons, to vaccination.

Curry requested that her daughter be declared exempt from the vaccination requirement because of the letter which expressed objection on religious grounds; requested the court to stop the Department from barring her daughter from attending school until the declaratory judgment action was completed; the Department be enjoined from attempting to go behind her expressed objection to determine whether it actually was based upon religious grounds. The Department responded with a motion to dismiss, in which it argued that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction; Curry had failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the action; Curry had failed to allege ultimate facts establishing an entitlement to either declaratory or injunctive relief. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss and granted Curry a temporary injunction so that her daughter could attend school.  The Department of Health appealed and filed an answer in which it admitted that it required an applicant to articulate the specific religious tenet or practice which conflicts with the administration of immunizing agents before issuing a religiously based exemption from vaccination. The Department maintained that section 232.032 allows it to investigate whether a request for exemption is actually based upon a religious ground and, if it determines that it is not, to deny it.

Curry argued that section 232.032 clearly and unambiguously provides that a parent or guardian is entitled to have his or her child exempted from the required vaccinations if he or she “objects in writing that the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices,” and that nothing in the statute authorizes the Department to investigate the bona fides of such an objection. Thus, it was argued, the Department’s attempt to investigate a request for exemption clearly exceeds it statutory authority.

The opinion of the Court stated:The legislature provided that the Department is to be responsible for the implementation and enforcement of section 232.032, however the legislature also provides, in relatively plain language, that “the provisions of the section shall not apply if the parent or guardian of the child objects in writing that the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices. Furthermore, it stated, had the legislature intended to place with the Department the responsibility for determining the bona fides of such an objection, one would expect to find within the language of the statute some language suggesting such an intent.  When given its commonly understood meaning, the language does not permit the interpretation urged by the Department.

The issue that the Court was called upon to decide implicates two very important social policies: the desire to protect the public health and welfare; and the desire to protect a parent’s fundamental right to raise his or her child according to the religious tenets that he or she chooses. The court concluded that the legislature intended that when the two policies collide, greater protection be afforded to the latter by prohibiting any inquiry by the Department into the bona fides of the parent’s or guardian’s objection.

Whereas the Department argued that such an interpretation of section 232.032 would lead to unreasonable and absurd results because parent’s could get a religious exemption for entirely bogus, fraudulent, or otherwise non-religious reasons, thereby defeating the purpose of the statute, the Court defended the legislature, saying this was a relatively minor concern compared to the danger that giving to the Department the authority to determine the bona fides of such objection would pose to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions.

The Department doctrine that requires the exhaustion of administrative remedies (i.e., proof) is based upon considerations of policy rather than of jurisdiction. The Court’s decision affirmed that the statute does not authorize the Department to question the sincerity of a religious objection to vaccination.

Note: Previously set precedence acknowledges that defining religion or religious belief is an inherently difficult task and that attempts to ascertain the sincerity of claims of religious belief must be undertaken with extreme caution. The Court concluded that there is nothing to suggest that the Department possesses any particular expertise with regard to such matters. In other words, the Court emphasized that the Department is not qualified to judge religious beliefs. Moreover, they added, most parents are legitimately concerned about the health and welfare of their children, and that the overwhelming majority will recognize the value of vaccination.

The Court also pointed out that section 232.032 permits the Department to require that children who have not been vaccinated be prevented from attending school in the event of an outbreak of any communicable disease. Thus, the intent of the legislature has little impact upon the Department’s ability to ensure that the purpose of the statute is carried out.

The trial court directed the Department to certify to the Holmes County School Board that Curry’s daughter was exempt, for religious reasons, from the vaccinations mandated by section 232.032. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of the Department’s motion to dismiss and it affirmed the award of declaratory and injunctive relief to Curry.

* In January 1997 the newly created Department of Health became responsible for matters related to public and environmental health, including preventing the occurrence and progression of communicable diseases.