Marina Williams had no idea she was igniting a hullabaloo when she asked the Orchard Park Central School District last October for a religious exemption to having her daughters vaccinated.
It had not been a problem at the girls' last schools in West Seneca, where they had attended since kindergarten, but Orchard Park denied the exemption.
That's because each district makes its own determination on the request for a religious exemption from vaccinations. Public Health Law allows the exemption, when parents "hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs" that are contrary to the required immunizations.
Exemptions from vaccinations are being scrutinized around the country after several measles outbreaks have been reported in New York, Washington and Texas. California has eliminated religious exemptions, and there is a bill in New York that would do the same.
But for now, it is up to each district to consider requests for exemptions.
West Seneca Superintendent Matthew Bystrak declined to comment on Williams' children, citing state and federal privacy laws preventing the district from discussing specific students and information on their health.
“The District has procedures in place to ensure compliance with New York State immunization laws, and we take this responsibility very seriously," the district said in a statement. "Protecting the health and welfare of our students and staff is a critical duty. We are continually working to ensure our procedures meet the needs of our school community, and we remain committed to doing so.”
Every school district in Erie and Niagara counties has granted religious exemptions to students.
"What happened in the first district doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the next district," said David Albert, director of communications, research and marketing for the New York State School Boards Association. "If you get an exemption in one district, it doesn't automatically mean that you’re going to get an exemption in another district."
Williams found that out, when Orchard Park refused to allow the girls into school after Nov. 30 without proof of immunization. She is appealing the denial of the exemption to the state education commissioner, and turned to State Supreme Court earlier this month to have her daughters educated while waiting for the commissioner's decision. The judge denied the request.
New York issues guidelines for schools on how to implement requests from parents for religious exemptions to immunization, which state that parents do not have to be enrolled members of a religious organization to get an exemption.
The suggested form notes that "philosophical, political, scientific or sociological objections" do not count for an exemption. The parents are to explain in their own words why they wants the exemption, describing the religious principles guiding their decision.
The district can ask for more information, such as a letter from a representative of the religious organization and any other information the parents may offer that would show their sincere religious objection.
Williams provided a brief written statement and a letter from a representative of her church, the Temple of the Inner Flame. She also met with an administrator from the district in November, and said she was trying to buy time until the commissioner issued a decision, according to the administrator's affidavit. When she was asked if she intended to immunize her daughters, Williams said no, according to the administrator.
Immunization rates in Erie and Niagara counties generally are high. At Orchard Park Central, 99.1 percent of students had all of their immunizations in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Less than 1 percent of the students, 0.73 percent, had been granted religious exemptions.
At West Seneca, 97.4 percent of students are immunized, and 0.58 percent were granted religious exemptions in 2017–18.
Assemblyman Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, is co-sponsoring the bill in the Assembly that would eliminate the exemption from vaccines due to religious beliefs.
“As a father, I want the best for my children and for all children in Western New York. That includes making sure they are protected from debilitating diseases that have largely been eradicated in the United States, but have been making an unfortunate comeback as of late,” Burke said in a statement.
Most people who get measles have not been immunized against the ailment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Three measles outbreaks in New York State are among 159 cases of measles reported in the United States between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By comparison, there were 55 cases in the country in 2012 and 86 in 2016.
The New York outbreaks, which include three or more cases, are in Monroe County, Rockland County and Brooklyn.
There are two reasons to get vaccinated, according to Dr. Dennis Z. Kuo, chief of general pediatrics at John R. Oishei Children's Hospital. One is to be protected from the disease, and the other is to protect those who cannot get vaccines for medical reasons such as immune system deficiencies or someone receiving chemotherapy. And in some people, the vaccines are not totally effective, he said.
The idea is to reach immunization rates above the 90 percent range for contagious diseases. That often is referred to as "herd immunity," where enough of the herd is immunized to prevent an outbreak.
The last large outbreak of measles was from 1989 to 1991, when 55,000 cases and 132 deaths were reported, according to the CDC. And from mid-October 1992 through January 1993, no outbreaks were reported in the United States. But physicians fear a major outbreak can spring up, particularly with the anti-vaccine movement.
"There are enough pockets of unvaccinated individuals that the disease may come roaring back," Kuo said.