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Girl stays in school without shots
Judge says Liverpool district must admit child until court rules on mother's case.

By John O'Brien

A Liverpool kindergarten pupil can continue going to school without having state-mandated immunizations because of her mother's religious belief that all medicines violate the sacredness of the body, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Frederick Scullin issued a preliminary injunction Monday against the Liverpool school district, barring it from keeping Victoria Turner from attending Liverpool Elementary School at least until he decides the case after a trial.

A lawyer for the school district said the case was the first of many such claims during the past year from parents seeking religious exemptions to the immunization requirement.

Scullin found that evidence at a hearing in October showed Victoria's mother, Kelly Turner, was likely to succeed in her lawsuit, in which she claimed Victoria should get a religious exemption from a state health law requiring that all schoolchildren be immunized against childhood diseases.

Kelly Turner "has minimally provided sufficient support for a finding that her views are 'truly held,' " Scullin wrote in a 19-page decision. "The court concludes that (she) has established a likelihood of success on the merits."

"She's ecstatic," said Turner's lawyer, Samuel Young, after informing her Monday of Scullin's decision. Young is handling the case for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The court found that her beliefs are more than scientific or health-related, but that they occupy a place in her life which is typically that of one's religion."

The school district contended Turner's concerns were based not on a religious belief, but on the scientific or philosophical teachings of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom, which is led by chiropractors. A physician for the district told district officials that a child who was not immunized against disease would pose a "serious health threat" not only to that child, but to the immunized students and staff at the school.

Victoria Turner has been attending kindergarten since the beginning of school despite not having inoculations. Scullin ruled last year that the district had to allow her to attend school while the lawsuit was pending.

"She's been perfectly healthy throughout the school year, and as far as I know, everyone else has, also," Young said.

Scullin ruled in Turner's favor, despite finding that her testimony about her religious beliefs was "inconsistent and ever-evolving."

The district's lawyer, Dennis O'Hara, said at least a half-dozen similar claims have been made by parents seeking religious exemptions in other local school districts, and that the outcome of Turner's case will determine which way those cases go.

"The court's analysis apparently means that anyone who opposes immunization and claims that this opposition is religious will be entitled to an exemption," O'Hara said. "Such a low threshold has potentially serious public health implications. We need to pursue this case to its end to determine if that analysis is, in fact, the law."

In a full trial, the Turner case could turn out differently, O'Hara said.

Federal courts have refused to recognize a group of chiropractors with a belief against immunization as a religion. But Scullin said Turner followed the Congregation of Universal Wisdom's teachings as though they were a religion.

Turner, 34, has worked since 1990 as a chiropractic assistant. She testified at the hearing that she started following the tenets of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom in 1990, and became a certified member in 1996.

She called the practice of medicine a pagan religion, partly because doctors take the Hippocratic oath, which she said praises gods or goddesses.

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

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