Florida Case History on Religious Exemption
Florida Case History on Religious Exemption
Department of Health vs. Curry - 1998
A religious exemption to mandated vaccination requirements is explicitly
provided for in Section 3 (a) of Florida Statute 232.032
(3) The provisions of this section shall not apply if:
(a) The parent or
guardian of the child objects in writing that the administration of
immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices
In 1998, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court's judgment
regarding a mother's request for a religious exemption for her daughter.
Specifically, the Court declared that when a student's parent or guardian
objects to vaccination requirements on religious grounds, the Department of
Health is prohibited from inquiring into the bona fides of the objection.
In August 1996, Sara Curry wrote a letter to the Holmes County Department
Health and Rehabilitative Services* objecting to the vaccination of her
daughter against communicable diseases as a condition precedent to her
admission to public school for the upcoming school year on the ground that
the administration of immunizing agents conflicts with her religious
and requested a religious exemption. The Department responded that her
was legally insufficient to grant a religious exemption from vaccinations.
addition to being denied the exemption to which she was entitled, Curry's
daughter was being denied admission to public school because she had not
received the mandated vaccinations. Curry was told by the Department that
could "request an administrative hearing" if she was not satisfied with
Instead of requesting an administrative hearing, Curry filed an action in
trial court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Curry effectively
asked the court for an interpretation of the pertinent language in this
statute that guarantees religious rights.
Curry asserted that, according to the plain language of Section 232.032,
daughter was entitled to exemption from the mandatory vaccination provision
upon receipt by the Department of a written objection, for religious
to vaccination. Curry requested that her daughter be declared exempt from
vaccination requirement because of the letter which expressed objection on
requested the court to stop the Department from barring her daughter from
attending school until the declaratory judgment action was completed;
the Department be enjoined from attempting to go behind her expressed
objection to determine whether it actually was based upon religious
The Department responded with a motion to dismiss, in which it argued that
the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction;
Curry had failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the
Curry had failed to allege ultimate facts establishing an entitlement to
either declaratory or injunctive relief.
Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss and
Curry a temporary injunction so that her daughter could attend school. The
Department of Health appealed and filed an answer in which it admitted that
it required an applicant to articulate the specific religious tenet or
practice which conflicts with the administration of immunizing agents
issuing a religiously based exemption from vaccination. The Department
maintained that section 232.032 allows it to investigate whether a request
for exemption is actually based upon a religious ground and, if it
that it is not, to deny it.
Curry argued that section 232.032 clearly and unambiguously provides that a
parent or guardian is entitled to have his or her child exempted from the
required vaccinations if he or she "objects in writing that the
administration of immunizing agents conflicts with his or her religious
tenets or practices," and that nothing in the statute authorizes the
Department to investigate the bona fides of such an objection. Thus, it was
argued, the Department's attempt to investigate a request for exemption
clearly exceeds it statutory authority.
The opinion of the Court stated:
The legislature provided that the Department is to be responsible for the
implementation and enforcement of section 232.032, however
The legislature also provides, in relatively plain language, that "the
provisions of the section shall not apply if the parent or guardian of the
child objects in writing that the administration of immunizing agents
conflicts with his or her religious tenets or practices.
Furthermore, it stated, had the legislature intended to place with the
Department the responsibility for determining the bona fides of such an
objection, one would expect to find within the language of the statute some
language suggesting such an intent. When given its commonly understood
meaning, the language does not permit the interpretation urged by the
The issue that the Court was called upon to decide implicates two very
important social policies:
the desire to protect the public health and welfare; and
the desire to protect a parent's fundamental right to raise his or her
according to the religious tenets that he or she chooses.
The court concluded that the legislature intended that when the two
collide, greater protection be afforded to the latter by prohibiting any
inquiry by the Department into the bona fides of the parent's or guardian's
Whereas the Department argued that such an interpretation of section
would lead to unreasonable and absurd results because parent's could get a
religious exemption for entirely bogus, fraudulent, or otherwise
non-religious reasons, thereby defeating the purpose of the statute, the
Court defended the legislature, saying this was a relatively minor concern
compared to the danger that giving to the Department the authority to
determine the bona fides of such objection would pose to the free exercise
religion guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions.
The Department doctrine that requires the exhaustion of administrative
remedies (i.e., proof) is based upon considerations of policy rather than
jurisdiction. The Court's decision affirmed that the statute does not
authorize the Department to question the sincerity of a religious objection
Note: Previously set precedence acknowledges that defining religion or
religious belief is an inherently difficult task and that attempts to
ascertain the sincerity of claims of religious belief must be undertaken
extreme caution. The Court concluded that there is nothing to suggest that
the Department possesses any particular expertise with regard to such
matters. In other words, the Court emphasized that the Department is not
qualified to judge religious beliefs. Moreover, they added, most parents
legitimately concerned about the health and welfare of their children, and
that the overwhelming majority will recognize the value of vaccination.
The Court also pointed out that section 232.032 permits the Department to
require that children who have not been vaccinated be prevented from
attending school in the event of an outbreak of any communicable disease.
Thus, the intent of the legislature has little impact upon the Department's
ability to ensure that the purpose of the statute is carried out.
The trial court directed the Department to certify to the Holmes County
School Board that Curry's daughter was exempt, for religious reasons, from
the vaccinations mandated by section 232.032. The Court of Appeal affirmed
the trial court's denial of the Department's motion to dismiss and it
affirmed the award of declaratory and injunctive relief to Curry.
* In January 1997 the newly created Department of Health became responsible
for matters related to public and environmental health, including
the occurrence and progression of communicable diseases.