By James R. Filenbaum, Esq.
Excerpted from Innovation, Spring 2000
A great deal of concern regarding immunizations has recently been given considerable media attention. While many people are now looking at alternative information sources as to the choice of whether to have their children immunized, their rights are often not clearly explained. As an attorney who has represented many people who have secured exemptions from immunizations, and has won the leading Federal Court cases which have expanded peoples’ rights to claim exemptions from immunizations, I have become particularly familiar with this area of the law.
Most States only allow an exemption from immunizations for children attending school based upon religious beliefs or by a licensed physician signing a certificate indicating that the immunizations are contraindicated. Some States have taken a more liberal approach in the enactment of statutes that allow for children to be admitted into school attendance based upon the parents’ request for an exemption.
Securing the medical exemption is extremely difficult since only those criteria approved by the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics as contraindication for each immunization are considered valid by school districts or Health Departments. Therefore, requests for exemptions for medical reasons are extremely limited.
Valid claims for exemption from immunizations based upon religious beliefs now encompass PERSONAL religious beliefs. This is a much broader base than was possible before we won several landmark cases. A great number of people fail to utilize this right to a religious exemption because they view religion in traditional terms and do not feel the exemption can apply to them because they are not members of a specific church, such as the Christian Scientists.
Religion goes far beyond simple membership in a church, attendance of services, adherence to prescribed dogma, or participation in various rituals. While an exact definition of what would constitute a “religious belief” varies depending upon what purpose is being applied to the use of the word “religion in”, pursuing a claim for a religious exemption from immunizations the standard which must be considered is that which is established by the United States Supreme Court. Therefore, in adherence to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantee of freedom of religion, the test in determining whether a belief constitutes a “religious belief” sufficient to qualify for the religious exemption from immunizations, is whether the adherents’ beliefs and faiths occupy a place in their lives parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God held by others; or any other “sincere religious beliefs which are based upon a power or being, or upon a faith to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent.” U.S. Vs. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), Sherr and Levy vs. Northport East-Northport Union Free School district, 672 F.Supp. 81, (E.D.N.Y. 1987).
The right to claim exemption from immunization based on religious beliefs is available to all persons who hold religious beliefs against immunization regardless of what any state statute may say regarding the necessity for membership in any particular religious group or church.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from discriminating between people based on their religious beliefs. If there is any state law that allows for exemption based on religious beliefs, it is available to all those people who hold religious beliefs against immunization even if their beliefs are personal and unique to them alone.
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