United States District Court, Northern District of New York
February 11, 2002
KELLY TURNER, ON HER OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF VICTORIA TURNER, AN INFANT, PLAINTIFF,
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
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).
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.
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 immunization
requirement in § 2164(9).*fn6 The statute provides that
[t]his section shall not apply to children whose
parent, parents, or guardian hold genuine and sincere
religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices
herein required, and no certificate shall be required
as a prerequisite to such children being admitted or
received into school or attending school.
See N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 2164(9) (McKinney 2001) (emphasis
The Establishment Clause provides that "Congress shall make no law
respecting the establishment of religion." To avoid violating the
Establishment Clause, a law must have (1) a secular purpose, (2) a
primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) must
not produce excessive government entanglement with religion. See Lemon
v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Defendants argue that the religious
exemption in New York Public Health Law § 2164(9) violates all three
prongs of the Establishment Clause test. First, they argue that the
statutory exemption has no secular purpose and is not facially neutral.
Second, they contend that the primary effect of § 2164(9) is to
advance participation in religious life or religion. Finally, Defendants
argue that application of the religious exemption requires excessive
entanglement of state and church. Accordingly, Defendants claim that the
religious exemption violates the Establishment Clause; and they therefore
seek a declaratory judgment that the religious exemption is
It is well-settled that courts will presume that a law is
constitutional. See Borden Farm Prods. Co., Inc. v. Baldwin, 293 U.S. 194,
209 (1934). Thus, the District bears a heavy burden to show that the
statute at issue is unconstitutional.
1. The Statutory Exemption Contained in § 2164(9) Has a Secular
First, Defendants argue that the religious exemption does not have a
secular purpose and therefore does not satisfy the first prong of the
Lemon test. As a preliminary matter, the Second Circuit has upheld
religious exemptions. See, e.g., Lewis v. Sobol, 710 F. Supp. 506 (S.D.N
Y 1989). More recently, the Supreme Court has required that a statutory
exemption for religious practices balances the two goals of not imposing
a substantial burden on non-beneficiaries while permitting beneficiaries
to act according to their religious beliefs. See, e.g., Texas Monthly,
Inc. v. Bullock, 489 U.S. 1,
14-15 (1989). Defendants argue that an exemption from vaccination
imposes a substantial burden on non-beneficiaries because it exposes
young school children to children who have not been vaccinated and
therefore increases everyone's risk of infection. In addition,
Defendants assert that the law imposes a financial burden on school
districts because it forces school districts to determine whether an
individual is eligible to receive a religious exemption from
Defendants have misconstrued the "secular purpose" prong of the
Establishment Clause test. The "secular purpose" inquiry is properly
directed at whether the government is legislating in such a way as to
abandon neutrality and promote a particular religious point of view. In
the present case, the secular purpose of § 2164(9) is to allow
children, whose parents have a "genuine and sincere religious belief"
that prohibits them from having their children innoculated, attend
school. The statutory exemption is sufficiently neutral to satisfy the
secular purpose test because it does not favor one religion over
another. Rather, it exempts all religious believers from immunization if
their beliefs oppose it.
2. The Statutory Exemption Contained in § 2164(9) Does not have the
Primary Effect of Advancing or Inhibiting Religion
In Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (1997) the Court enhanced the
second part of the Establishment Clause test — a court is required
to ask (1) "whether the government acted with the purpose of advancing or
inhibiting religion" and (2) "whether the aid has the effect of advancing
or inhibiting religion." Id. at 222-23.
Defendants argue that the statutory religious exemption improperly
advances religion because its essential effect is to entitle those
holding a religious belief against immunization to be exempted from
immunization. For a law to violate the "effects prong" of the
Establishment Clause inquiry, the government must have "advanced religion
through its own activities and influences." Corp. of the Presiding
Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos,
483 U.S. 327, 337 (1987). The "'"establishment" of a religion connote[s]
sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in
religious activity.'" Id. (quoting [Walz], 397 U.S. at 668, 90 S.Ct. at
1411) (other citation omitted). The immunization exemption at issue does
not confer financial benefits on those with religious beliefs, nor does
it sponsor or support any religious organization. It merely permits
anyone with "genuine" and "sincere" religious beliefs to express those
beliefs or to live in conformity with those beliefs. Moreover, the
exemption does not have the "effect" of advancing or inhibiting religion
because it does not promote religious beliefs, nor does the law promote
one religious group over any other.*fn9
3. Application of the Exemption Does Not Necessitate Excessive
Entanglement of Church and State
Subsumed in the "effects prong" inquiry is the question of whether the
at issue produces excessive government entanglement with religion. To
determine whether entanglement is excessive, a court "must examine the
character and purposes of the institutions that are benefitted." Lemon,
403 U.S. at 615. A court then must look at the resulting relationship
between the government and the religious authority. See id. If the
program is apt to entangle the State in details of administration of
religion, the entanglement is deemed excessive. See id.
In the present case, however, the Court finds that the statute does not
directly subsidize or benefit religious organizations. In addition, the
inquiry that the Board must undertake to determine whether the parents'
beliefs are "genuine" or "sincere" does not require the school to assess
the validity of the individual's beliefs. The relationship between the
Board and the parents is not ongoing and does not require the Board to
interfere in any way in the administration of religion. Accordingly, the
Court finds that the statutory exemption does not require excessive
governmental entanglement with religion.
The Court denies Defendants' motion for dismissal pursuant to Rule
12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because the Court finds
that it has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims. In addition, the Court
denies Defendants' motion for declaratory judgment and summary judgment.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated herein, the Court hereby ORDERS that
Defendants' motion for dismissal of this action for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction is DENIED; and the Court further ORDERS that
Defendants' motion for summary judgment is DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.