The Wexler Decision
VII. SINCERITY OF PLAINTIFFS' BELIEFS
In order for plaintiffs to be afforded the exemption from immunization
that they seek, it is not sufficient merely that the beliefs that they
assert as grounds for exemption be religious in nature. It must also be
demonstrated that the espoused beliefs are sincerely held and that the
stated beliefs, even if accurately reflecting plaintiffs' ultimate
conclusions about the advisability of inoculation of their children, do in
fact stem from religious convictions and have not merely been framed in
terms of religious belief so as to gain the legal remedy desired.7/
Attempts to ascertain the sincerity of claims of religious belief must
be undertaken with extreme caution. The Second Circuit observed in Barber:
Sincerity analysis seeks to determine the subjective good faith of an
adherent .... The goal, of course, is to protect only those beliefs
which are held as a matter of conscience. Human nature being what it is,
however, it is frequently difficult to separate this inquiry from a
forbidden one involving the verity of the underlying belief.
650 F.2d at 441. Any form of governmental investigation into the
"objective truth" of a person's religious beliefs, be it in a
judicial form or otherwise, in essence puts the individual on trial for
heresy. See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 64 S.Ct. 882
(1944). As the Supreme Court emphasized in Seeger, however:
course, a question of fact ....
While the "truth" of a belief is not open to question,
there remains the significant question whether it is "truly
held." This is the threshold question of sincerity which must be
resolved in every case. It is, of
380 U.S. at 185, 85 S.Ct. at 863. See also, e.g., Africa, 662
F.2d 1025; Stevens, 428 F.Supp. 896; Riga, Religious, Sincerity,
and Free Exercise, 25 Catholic Lawyer 246 (1980).
In the papers the Sherrs have filed with the Court and in Alan Paul
Sherr's testimony on his family's behalf, the Sherrs have couched their
opposition to vaccination of their son Jared in the language of religion.
Upon careful consideration of all the evidence put forward in this
litigation concerning the Sherr family, their asserted beliefs, and the
actions they have taken over the last several years with regard to their
desire to avoid inoculation of their children, however, the Court finds
that, although the Sherrs are clearly genuinely opposed to immunization,
the heart of their opposition does not in fact lie in theological
considerations. The Court is of the opinion, in other words, that although
the Sherrs' voiced resistance to vaccination is no doubt sincere, their
claims of a sincerely religious basis for their objections to inoculation
are not credible.
The evidence presented reveals that when Alan Paul and Claudia Sherr
registered their elder son Scott Daniel Sherr for kindergarten in the
Northport-East Northport school system in February 1985, they produced an
affidavit requesting that Scott be exempted from § 2164's immunization
requirements because the Sherrs were members of "The American Natural
Hygiene Society, Inc." a "national non-profit, tax-exempt,
health-education organization." The affidavit stated that the society
"rejects the theory and use of compulsory inoculations under any
circumstances, as a matter of science, safety, and conscience," and
that members of the society "are opposed to inoculations as violating
the natural laws of life and health by introducing pathological toxins
into a healthy, human body." Nowhere in the document is there any
mention of a religious foundation for the beliefs of the society's
members. The school district rejected the Sherrs' claim for an exemption,
and Scott entered school after receiving the requisite vaccinations.
In February 1987, plaintiffs registered Jared for kindergarten and
submitted documents signed by one Gustave Dubbs, minister of "The
Missionary Temple at Large, Universal Religious Brotherhood, Inc." in
Sarasota, Florida, indicating that the Sherrs were members of this group
and that the temple adheres to, among other things, belief in spiritual
healings and opposes compulsory immunization. Investigation by the school
district uncovered that the local Sarasota schools were not familiar with
the temple, that it had no formal organization or structure, conducted no
religious services, and operated out of Dubbs's home. The
"temple," in other words, was nothing more than a "mail
order church." The school district therefore rejected the Sherrs'
request that Jared be granted an exemption from inoculation.
In July 1987, the Sherrs sent a Letter to Dr. Brosnan informing him
that they had retained counsel, stating that they believed they were
entitled to an exemption under § 2164(9), and setting forth in a series
of numbered paragraphs their asserted religious beliefs.8/
The letter made no mention of either The American Natural Hygiene Society
or Gustave Dubbs's temple in Florida, and the beliefs the Sherrs claimed
in the letter to be their own bore a striking resemblance to those which
the plaintiffs in Allanson had asserted in their successful suit in
front of Judge Miner.9/
The Sherrs then filed their action against the school district and state
defendants, again modifying their description of their supposed beliefs. See
supra p. 27 for the Sherr family's beliefs as stated in Paragraph 12
of their complaint.
Alan Paul Sherr's testimony also highlights the dubious sincerity of
plaintiffs' purported religious basis for their wish that Jared not be
vaccinated. Sherr admitted that he had joined Gustave Dubbs's group solely
for the purpose of attempting to gain an exemption for Scott and was not
even clear as to the temple's name. Sherr also conceded that he had
"paraphrased" the statement of the Allanson's beliefs in Judge
Miner's opinion. Additionally, in response to the Court's questioning,
Sherr testified that, although he opposed any "intrusion" into
the body on religious grounds, he had had Jared X-rayed when it was
believed that the boy had broken his leg, allowed dentists to remove decay
from cavities his children might have, and had his children circumcised.
Furthermore, Alan Paul Sherr is a chiropractor, and during the course of
his testimony it became clear that his opposition to vaccinations and
attitudes toward sickness and health in all likelihood derive for the most
part from his medical and philosophical perspective as a chiropractor and
chiropractic ethics, not from any religiously inspired source. The Court's
conclusion, moreover, is buttressed by its observance of Alan Paul Sherr's
demeanor and attitude on the stand.
Since the Court finds that the Sherrs do not sincerely hold the
religious beliefs they put forth as the foundation for their assertion of
entitlement to an exemption from immunization under § 2164(9), these
plaintiffs' claim for relief from the refusal of the exemption they seek
must be denied.
The Levys, on the other hand, do manifest a complete sincerity about
the religious beliefs they embrace. Louis Levy, for instance, testified
that he has studied and done a good deal of reading on religion since his
teens and has for many years been very involved in religious and spiritual
study and activity. The Levys' conception of human existence and the
physical world seems to pervade their whole way of life, including their
eating habits and methods of combating illness, and Louis Levy stated that
his family's religious precepts concerning vaccinations are in adherence
with those of the Christian Science Church. Although the Levys, like the
Sherrs, joined a religious organization in an attempt to gain an exemption
under § 2164(9), namely "The Church of Human Life Science,"
that organization does not appear to be a sham like Gustave Dubbs's
"temple" in Florida, but an actual group whose views are very
much in line with that which the Levys' hold. It is a fundamental tenet of
the group, for instance, that "the integrity of the body be
maintained" since "our bodies are the temple of our being."
The church, therefore, "reject[s] completely any manner of cutting,
puncturing, pollution, intravenous injection of any substance,
vaccination, inoculation or any other imposition upon the vital
domain" and holds that "all drugs and vaccines are ethically,
morally, religiously, mentally and physically wrong, being at variance
with our Creator's Mandate." Louis Levy, moreover, greatly impressed
the Court with the seriousness with which he has contemplated the
foundations of his religious beliefs and their implications for his
family's daily life, and with the thoughtfulness with which he considered
the theological ramifications of the questions posed to him.
Accordingly, the Court finds that the Levy family holds sincere
religious beliefs which would be violated by the mandatory vaccination of
Sandra Jasmine Levy as a condition of attending school. The Levys,
therefore, are entitled to a religious exemption from inoculation under §
7/ The school district defendants have challenged the
sincerity of plaintiffs' assertions of religious beliefs that prohibit the
vaccination of their children. Although counsel for the state defendants
participated in cross-examination of Alan Paul Sherr and Louis Levy
concerning the beliefs they and their families purportedly hold, the state
defendants declare in the papers they filed subsequent to the taking of
plaintiffs' testimony that they do not now question the sincerity of
plaintiffs' avowed adherence to their respective systems of belief.
8/ The Sherrs' letter reads in relevant part:
Our religious beliefs are as follows:
To live in harmony with the natural world and its order, and not
sep[e]rate from our daily lives.
We are inclined to live in a way that will promote love and harmony
among all people, animals, plants and the natural world.
We are opposed to anything that interferes with this natural order.
We are not dogmatic or rigid in our actions or thinking[;]
flexibility and constant change are necessary to life itself.
We respect people[']s desires to live a long time, to avoid pain and
to seek happiness according to their unique needs and desires.
We believe that all things are part of one intimate universe or
whole. This universe includes everything good being called GOD.
We believe in a definite order to the universe, and that everything
follows and is a result of this order.
We believe that life is not characterised by disease. Another word
for life is God and one characteristic of God is health.
We believe that life is the end result of the truth of love and
life therefore has inherent to it design and control.
We believe that health is the unhindered expression of life moving
through the body, mind and heart. Therefore anything that hinders life's
expression is contrary to our beliefs. Immunization, therefore, hinders
life and thus is contrary to God.
We believe that when the identity is focused on disease, disease is
what manifests[;] when it is focused on life, life is what manifests.
All medications and pharmaceuticals are defensive, indicating a focus on
disease; life is offensive, therefore medications are not required. Life
begets life and health begets health. This is God's way[;] to deviate
could be sinning. Immunization, therefore, focuses on disease and is
contrary to God's way and is therefore sin.
We believe thou shall love the lord thy God,... not thou shalt love
disease... the stance is one of life, not disease or in religious terms
We believe there is one God, one whole. The whole is greater than the
sum of its parts not the sum of the parts equal[s] the whole.
9/ Judge Miner sets forth Robert and Kathryn
Allanson's beliefs at some length in his decision in their case:
As described by plaintiffs in papers earlier submitted to the Court,
[plaintiffs'] "beliefs" consist of the following:
"All persons and phenomenon are following a grand natural order,
which should not be interfered with. All things are inter-connected and
operate harmoniously. Man's existence on earth is best served by not
disturbing this natural order. Immunization is abhorrent to these
beliefs, and plaintiffs vehemently oppose such practices as they are
contrary to plaintiffs' beliefs.
"These beliefs and faith in this grand natural order is
something to which all is virtually dependent on or subordinate to, and
occupies a paramount position in plaintiffs' daily lives, much the same
as traditional notions of religion occupied in the lives of its
Affidavit of Robert Allanson, Paragraphs 15 and 16.
Plaintiffs have amplified this description in the following manner:
Our religious beliefs require us to want to live in harmony with the
natural world and its order. Our religion is not separate from our daily
lives. We are inclined to live in a way that will promote love and
harmony among all people, animals, plants and the natural world. We are
inclined to avoid, and if necessary, to oppose anything that interferes
with this natural order.
However, we try not to be dogmatic or rigid in our actions or
thinking -- flexibility and constant change are necessary for life
itself. We respect people's desires to live a long time, to avoid pain
and to seek happiness according to their unique needs and desires.
We believe that all things are part of one intimate universe, or
whole. This universe that includes everything good being called God,
although we usually do not use this word because many people think of
God as an individual consciousness, much like their own. This Oneness or
God is understood in many religions to be the ultimate origin and
Creator of everything.
We believe that there is a definite order in the Universe, and that
everything follows and is a result of this order, even if we often do
not clearly see or understand it.
We believe that in accordance with the universal or natural order,
human beings evolved within and are still very much a part of the
natural order and what is called "The Natural World." It has
been persuasively demonstrated by a modern science that human beings are
one species of animal among many, and that we share with other animals
certain limitations. These limitations involve the need for certain
definite environmental and dietary conditions in order to be healthy and
continue to live. For example, human beings need certain amounts of
sunlight, oxygen, and various nutrients which are unique to our species.
When human beings are without the conditions under which their
fundamental heartiness and health develop, and/or are exposed to
artificial or unusual conditions or substances, there is the probability
of weakening stress and the possibility of bodily damage.
Allanson, No.CV 84-174, slip op. at 8-11.
VIII. SCOPE OF INJUNCTIVE RELIEF - Wexler Decision
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