A woman who claimed she saw "God in everything" and feared immunizing her daughter because it would inject "disease" into her "perfect" and "divine" human form failed to establish religious grounds sufficient for an exemption from New York state's mandatory vaccination rules, a federal judge has ruled.
Martina Caviezel, a self-proclaimed pantheist, sought a preliminary injunction allowing her to enroll her 4-year-old daughter in a Great Neck, N.Y., pre-kindergarten without getting the shots the state says the child needs. Caviezel relied on Public Health Law §2164(9), which exempts children from the requirement whose parents or guardians "hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary" to vaccination.
On Monday, in Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools, 10-civ-052, Eastern District Judge Arthur D. Spatt denied the injunction, ruling that Caviezel had not established that she held "genuine and sincere religious beliefs which prohibit vaccinations."
Around September 2009, Caviezel submitted a form requesting that her youngest child, C.C., be exempt from the requirement that children be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and other conditions. But, according to the decision, the school principal, Debbie Shalom, told her that her request would likely be denied.
Caviezel, a native of Switzerland, declined to meet with school superintendent Thomas Dolan because "people twist words around sometimes." She sued after her request was denied, alleging civil rights violations.
At a hearing last month, Caviezel testified that her other three children were all vaccinated. But she said she grew skeptical of immunizing her youngest daughter, C.C., as her understanding of pantheism grew deeper.
Caviezel was ordained as a minister after taking a one-day seminar at a Buffalo, N.Y., church called "Sanctuary of the Beloved." She said she was not a member of any formal religious organization but described her religion as seeing "God in everything…in the flowers in the spring when the flowers bloom, in the miracle of birthing."
She said she practiced her religion "mostly" by breathing, because by breathing, "I can be present to the presence of God." She also testified that she expressed her beliefs through "gratitude" -- by being thankful throughout the day.
Caviezel admitted that the church where she was ordained had not said anything about immunizing her children during the course she took there.
She also acknowledged that she had read articles about the possible link between vaccinations and autism but had not decided if the claim had any scientific basis.
"One day I read an article about, yes, you should immunize; and then the next day I read an article about, no, you shouldn't immunize," she told the court. "Ultimately, all I can go back to is if I believe in that we are divine in our design, immunizations are not necessary."
Upon further questioning, Caviezel admitted that she takes Motrin for headaches and gives her children peppermint oil for earaches but distinguished taking medicine from injecting "disease into the body."
The school superintendent testified that he had asked Caviezel and her husband to meet after the principal had denied the waiver but had not heard back until the suit was brought. He said that if he had had the chance to question the Caviezels, and if he "believed that their religious belief was sincere," he would have granted the exemption, according to the decision.
'SELECTIVE PERSONAL BELIEF'
Judge Spatt acknowledged that Caviezel had demonstrated that irreparable harm would occur if her child was not allowed to register for the class. However, he added she was unlikely to succeed on the merits.
The question turned on whether the parents' views against vaccinations were actually "genuine and sincere" religious beliefs.
While a "religious" belief was hard to describe, there is no requirement that a person belong to a "formal religious sect or church," Judge Spatt observed. On the other hand, a "philosophical and personal" belief that could influence life choices was not religious in nature, he said.
But, he wrote, settled case law held that religious freedom claims must be weighed against society's interests in "fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory inoculation programs," citing Sherr v. Northport East, 672 F.Supp. 81 (1987).
Here, the court concluded, the Caviezels' belief, while genuine and sincere, was not religious.
The judge cited Caviezel's admission that her church was not opposed to vaccinations and that she took Motrin and essential oils as evidence of "a selective personal belief" regarding medicine, rather than a religious one.
The judge discounted Caviezel's fear of "injecting disease" into the body and the subsequent "unnecessary" scarring marks of the vaccination as "personal rather than religious fears." And, he pointed out, both Caviezel and her youngest daughter already had an "unnecessary mark" to their bodies -- pierced ears.
"The Court finds that her reluctance to have her daughter vaccinated does not arise from a religious belief, but from a personal, moral or cultural feeling against vaccination for her young child," Judge Spatt concluded.
Patricia Finn of Piermont, N.Y., represented Caviezel. She said in an interview that her client plans to litigate the case and "let a jury decide." She said she hopes a trial can be held before the beginning of the school year, but that her client did not plan to have her daughter vaccinated.
Finn said that since English was not her client's first language, she "may have had difficulty expressing her religious beliefs."
Joseph Carbonaro of Frazer & Feldman in Garden City represented the school district. He said he was pleased with the ruling.