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TURNER v. LIVERPOOL CENTRAL SCH.

February 11, 2002

KELLY TURNER, ON HER OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF VICTORIA TURNER, AN INFANT, PLAINTIFF,
V.
LIVERPOOL CENTRAL SCHOOL, BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE LIVERPOOL CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND SUPERINTENDENT JOHN CATALDO, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frederick J. Scullin, Chief United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Kelly Turner, individually and as a guardian for her minor daughter, Victoria, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1988 asserting that Defendants violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Article I of the New York State Constitution, and New York Public Health Law § 2164. In particular, Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated her Constitutional rights and those of her minor daughter by failing to provide a religious exemption from New York State's immunization requirement pursuant to § 2164(9).

II. BACKGROUND

New York Public Health Law § 2164 mandates that children receive immunizations before public schools are permitted to admit them.*fn1 There are two narrow exceptions to this requirement, only one of which is relevant to this action. That exception allows a child to enter public school without immunization if that child's parents "hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs" which are contrary to the practice of immunization. See N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 2164(9) (emphasis added). Plaintiff and her daughter are members of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom ("Congregation"), and the practice of immunization is contrary to Plaintiff's religious beliefs.

Before registering her daughter for kindergarten, Plaintiff notified the Liverpool School District ("District") that she was religiously opposed to the introduction of any foreign material into the human body and, therefore, sought a religious exemption from New York State's immunization requirement.*fn2 See Complaint at ¶ 11. After questioning Ms. Turner, the District determined that the Congregation was not a genuine religion and that although Ms. Turner's beliefs regarding immunization were sincere, they were founded upon a personal philosophy rather than a legitimate religion.*fn3 As a result, Victoria Turner did not attend kindergarten in the Fall of 1999.

Subsequently, Plaintiff appealed this second rejection to the Board of Education ("Board"). The Board heard arguments on July 11, 2000, and voted to deny Plaintiff's appeal. On July 19, 2000, Plaintiff appealed the Board's decision to the New York State Commissioner of Education and requested a stay of the District's order during the pendency of the case. The Commissioner denied the stay, and Plaintiff eventually withdrew her appeal to the Commissioner of Education.

On August 29, 2000, Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction allowing her daughter to remain in school during these proceedings.*fn4 The Court held a hearing on the preliminary injunction and in its decision the Court found that although the religious congregation to which she claimed allegiance was questionable, Plaintiff established a likelihood of success on the merits because "the religious views she espouses appear to be religious in nature as opposed to merely philosophical or scientific in nature." See Memorandum-Decision and Order, dated March 8, 2001, Dkt. No. 30, at 18.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Alternatively, Defendants move for a declaratory judgment declaring that New York Public Health Law § 2164(9) (the "genuine" and "sincere" religious belief exemption) is unconstitutional pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The Court has Jurisdiction to Hear this Case because Plaintiff's Complaint Raises Issues of Federal Law
Defendants contend that this Court does not have jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims because her complaint does not present a federal question. Defendants advance two arguments in support of this contention. First, Defendants argue that the First Amendment does not require that States provide a religious exemption from immunization. Second, Defendants argue that the First Amendment does not require that States provide religious accommodations with respect to immunization statutes. Neither of these arguments is availing because jurisdiction is not dependent on whether Plaintiff can prove the merits of her complaint. Rather, Plaintiff need only state a federal issue in her well-pleaded complaint. See Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 152 (1908). As stated, in the present case, Plaintiff has alleged a violation of her constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Therefore, the Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.
B. The Constitutionality of New York Public Health Law § 2164(9)*fn5
Defendants contend that the statutory exemption to New York State's immunization requirement violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. As stated, the New York State Legislature created an exemption from the ...

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