Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Rita Palma and her children
A mother and father in New York were subjected by their school district’s attorney to a faith “sincerity test,” which ultimately ruled their beliefs were too questionable to qualify for a religious exemption to mandatory student immunization.
Ron and Rita Palma filed the exemption with their son’s school district in 2006 after coming to the conclusion the year before that the required vaccinations violated their conscience and sense of God’s leading for their family.
Rather than accept the standard exemption form, however, the Bayport-Blue Point Union Free School District demanded the couple meet with school attorney David Cohen. The Palmas have twice been compelled to sit down with Cohen to be interrogated about their faith and their convictions about vaccines.
“If you believe God is on your side,” Cohen asked in the most recent of the two interviews, conducted last fall, “does that mean he’s not on the side of someone who believes in immunization?”
“Do you have conversations with God? Has God told you not to immunize?” the attorney asked. “Explain it to me.”
Cohen described to the Palmas’ attorney that the purpose of the interview was two-fold: to determine whether the Palmas’ beliefs are actually religious, as opposed to philosophical or political; and to determine whether the beliefs are “sincerely and genuinely held.”
The school district’s most recent interrogation of the Palmas was videotaped, and a segment – which shows the attorney, Cohen, while the Palmas and their attorney sit off-screen – can be seen below:
Rita Palma told WND that being compelled to defend her faith before an attorney and answer questions about her family’s lifestyle, diet, medicinal choices and personal convictions was “unbelievably invasive.”
“It’s almost beyond words what we were put through,” Palma said. “It’s such an abusive power, it’s so arrogant that ‘outrageous’ doesn’t even label it correctly. It’s something you can’t even imagine that somebody would take it upon themselves to do – to judge the sincerity of your belief.
“Particularly in a school district,” Palma said, “taking it upon themselves to judge your relationship with God? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
Not only were the Palmas grilled, however, their attempts to file religious exemptions were also ultimately denied.
Following both interviews, the first in 2006 and the last in 2008, the school district deemed the Palmas’ beliefs were not sincerely held.
“This determination,” wrote the school in 2006, “was made based upon your meeting with the school attorney and information which we received, which significantly calls into question your stated beliefs.”
Rita Palma explained to WND that her choice not to immunize her children was a decision of conscience and of following God’s leading. In the interview with the lawyer, Palma further explained that she sees a distinction between medicine as a healing for sickness and vaccines, which she described as injecting a sickness as step toward heath. The latter, she insisted, violates her understanding of trust in God and his design for the body.
The school district’s denial, however, cited a medical test Palma gave her son as evidence that her beliefs are too inconsistent to be sincerely and genuinely held.
The district’s second denial, in 2008, further criticized the Palmas, a self-described Catholic family, for misquoting the Bible and claimed that if their objection was truly a matter of religious conviction, they could have sought something other than public school for their son.
The Palmas appealed the original denial to the state’s commissioner of public education, only to be denied again.
Now, with the help of New York State Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, the Palmas are working to prevent other parents from enduring the same interrogation or contra-conscience mandatory immunization of their children.
Gottfried, chair of the state Assembly’s health committee, has sponsored New York bill A00883, which amends state law to ban “sincerity tests” and states, “The current common practice of government agencies scrutinizing and judging a parent’s religious beliefs is inappropriate in a democracy that values the First Amendment.
“There could be concern that some parents might falsely claim a religious exemption,” the bill continues. “But it is greatly outweighed by the burden that the intrusive, prolonged inquiry imposes on bona fide objectors forced to defend their religious
WND contacted the offices of attorney David Cohen for response or comment but received no reply.