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State rejects religious exemption claim to get kids without vaccines into OP schools

The state Education Department has rejected a mother's claim to a religious exemption that would allow her to send her two teenage daughters to Orchard Park Central Schools without having received all required childhood vaccines.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia dismissed Marina Williams' appeal, saying she failed to show that the school district's decision to reject admission of her children was "arbitrary or capricious."

Orchard Park school officials late last year rejected Williams' application, concluding she failed to demonstrate a sincerely held religious belief opposing immunizations.

Williams, who moved from West Seneca schools to the Orchard Park district in October, tried but failed in February to get a state Supreme Court judge to force Orchard Park schools to temporarily admit her children while the state was considering her appeal.

In her 2015 request for an exemption approved by West Seneca schools – a copy of which Williams submitted as part of her request to Orchard Park officials – Williams 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."

"I find that petitioner's statements quoted above constitute general statements concerning petitioner's religious beliefs; as such, they are insufficient to demonstrate a genuine and sincerely held religious belief against immunization," Elia wrote in her March 20 decision.

Williams submitted a different version of her exemption request with her appeal to the state.

"Due to the spiritual beliefs of my families [sic] religion, [the students] cannot receive any medical vaccines. They are a foreign substance that is not naturally found in the body. We consider our bodies a temple of God that should be treated as such," the second request stated, according to Elia's decision.

Attorneys for Orchard Park schools argued the commissioner should not consider the second request on appeal because it was not submitted for review to the district. But that became a moot point.

"...[E]ven if I were to accept petitioner's statement, I would find that it, like the original exemption request, merely sets forth general statements which are insufficient to demonstrate a sincerely held religious belief," Elia wrote.

Frank Housh, Williams' attorney, said he and his client "are evaluating the commissioner's decision and determining our course of action."

"The children are in school and thriving," Housh said in an email.

Citing the "great deal of negative attention" Williams has received, Housh declined to name the school "out of concern for the children."

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