There are competing principles at play in the case of the Southtowns family that declines to have its two teenagers receive immunization vaccines required by the state for students attending public school. The teens’ mom says vaccines violate the family’s religious tenets. The Orchard Park Central School District maintains that the health and safety of the rest of the students and staff come first, and refuses to admit the students.
The school district is right to make the greater good of the community its first priority. The family needs to adjust.
The family moved last year into the Orchard Park district and applied for a religious exemption. They were turned down, then asked the state education commissioner for a stay of the district’s decision so the two girls could attend school. Again they were denied, then filed an appeal.
The appeals process could drag on for months. In the meantime, the girls’ mother, Marina Williams, wants the district to let them come to school, or to provide tutors at their home. District officials refused, prompting Williams to take them to State Supreme Court, where their case is to be heard on Friday.
The family moved last year into the Orchard Park district from West Seneca, where the girls, now 15 and 13, had been permitted to skip being vaccinated on religious grounds.
Court papers filed on behalf of Williams say the family belongs to the Temple of the Inner Flames Church.
“It is against our belief system for foreign substances such as vaccines to enter our bodies,” she states.
The family submitted a letter to the school from the Rev. Carol Ann Liaros testifing to their religious convictions. Liaros has a website on which she identifies herself as “a world-renowned psychic.” Yes, seriously.
The lawyer representing Williams, Frank Housh, stresses that his client is objecting to the immunizations strictly on religious grounds. “A lot of the people who refuse to vaccinate their children aren’t relying on a religious point of view, they simply have been misinformed,” Housh told The News. “That’s not what this is.”
New York State law leaves it up to school districts to determine if a parent’s religious beliefs are a valid reason for opting out of vaccines. Last year a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would make it easier for families to claim religious exemptions, requiring only that a parent or guardian fill out a form requesting it, but the bill did not make it out of committee. Nor should it. Public health needs to be the driving issue.
Connecticut and Florida have similar laws making religious exemptions easy to obtain, but in general states have been moving to strengthen vaccine requirements, not dilute them. The anti-vaccine movement, spread by celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, maintains there is a link between vaccines and autism, a theory debunked by multiple studies. Parents buying into anti-vaccine conspiracy theories put not only their own families at greater risk of contracting illnesses such as measles and mumps, but also endanger their communities by lessening the effects of herd immunity.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Orchard Park should admit the girls to school, or be provided education at home, until the state appeal is ruled upon. Williams says she also is awaiting results of blood tests to determine if her daughters have developed a natural immunity to the diseases for which vaccinations are required.
Religious rights are not to be taken lightly, but they may not intrude upon the rights of others. We’d suggest home schooling if the family and Orchard Park can’t resolve their stand-off.