Two teens who have not received all required childhood vaccines will not be allowed to attend classes in the Orchard Park Central School District for now, a judge ruled Friday.
State Supreme Court Judge Mark J. Grisanti rejected a mother’s request to force the district to temporarily admit her two children as she awaits an appeal to the state Education Department.
Marina Williams wanted her daughters to at least receive tutoring at home or another type of distance learning program provided by the district, which in October denied her application for a religious exemption to the vaccine requirement.
Williams’ daughters, ages 13 and 15, previously attended West Seneca schools, where the family had been granted the religious exception. The family moved into the Orchard Park district in October.
Williams has said her family belongs to the Temple of the Inner Flame Church and “it is against our belief system for foreign substances such as vaccines to enter our bodies,” she wrote in a 2015 request for a religious exemption while her daughters attended schools in West Seneca.
The fight in Orchard Park comes amid a growing crisis surrounding childhood vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the percentage of children who are unvaccinated has quadrupled since 2001, which appears to be connected and anti-vaccine movement that has outpaced pro-vaccine public health information.
Grisanti, in his ruling from the bench, said there are important factual issues regarding the timeline of events in this case. He noted that Orchard Park, before it finally stopped allowing her daughters in school on Nov. 30, had given Williams more than a month and a half to find alternative educational arrangements, but she had not done so.
Williams also did not comply with state laws regarding immunization requirements that she had to show there were blood tests “in process” for her daughters, which she said were being done to see if they developed any natural immunity to the diseases for which they needed to be vaccinated.
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Williams gave the district two notification forms from a laboratory that said the girls “had blood work done” on Dec. 5. Neither the district nor the court was presented with any results from those tests, the judge said.
The district initially believed Williams was sincerely pursuing alternative arrangements and had granted her extensions but came to see her actions, including this legal challenge, as “a stall tactic,” Joseph S. Brown, an attorney for the district, told Grisanti.
Frank T. Housh, Williams’ attorney, argued that Orchard Park officials were actively preventing the teens from getting an education.
“All they have to do is provide simple alternative educational arrangements,” Housh told the judge.
In making his ruling, Grisanti referenced that Williams had previously had her children immunized. When asked about the judge’s statements, she declined to provide specifics.
“At one point in time, I did veer from my religion,” Williams said.
Grisanti also described issues with other paperwork she submitted, including giving Orchard Park schools the exact forms she had submitted three years prior to West Seneca schools, which were addressed to that district.
Grasanti said he also found it odd that Williams did not submit her own affidavit to the court about the matter. Not submitting one was a “detriment” to her case, the judge said.
Williams’ decision not to vaccinate her children was a deeply held religious belief that goes back generations in her family, she has said. Williams said she did not know each district had its own paperwork. When she was younger, her mother just sent a letter, she said.
Housh, her attorney, said he believes the questions involving the specific facts of the case have not been taken up by a court before. He said Williams is considering her options for an appeal.
Williams said that she was not surprised by the ruling. Outside the courtroom Friday, she said her decision to not vaccinate her children should be between her and God — not the school district.
"It should not be judged by anyone else," she said. "It is no one’s business what religion I am. It’s between me and God."
But what of others, such as schoolmates, who might be affected by her choice not to vaccinate her children? Shouldn't they have a say, reporters asked.
"That’s why the Constitution is in place," she replied. "And that’s why New York State law is in place. So, no I don't."