Part 21 of Our Award-Winning Series “Our Children’s Health”
If not, you might want to catch what is known as a “religious sincerity hearing.” And if you want one close to home, try the Bayport-Blue Point Union Free School District (BBP), and its “Grand Inquisitor” David M. Cohen, BBP’s legal counsel.
First, let’s play semantics.
“It’s not really a hearing,” says The Grand Inquisitor. “It’s a meeting.”
OK, then—at BBP, a “religious exemption meeting” appears to be a sometimes very mean-spirited, frustrating and contentious gathering that is meant to determine a parent’s religiously based and sincerely held belief behind not wanting their child immunized. A growing number of parents are against vaccinating their children for a variety of reasons, ranging from religious tenets to the belief, by some, that vaccinations cause a variety of health problems in children, especially autism.
As the autism rates grow to epidemic proportion (it is now officially 1 in 150, although many believe it is higher) and many parents tie the onset to inoculations, studies report that there is no connection between vaccines and the rising disorder. But studies have been wrong before. And the medical and pharmaceutical lobby, which sponsors most of these studies, is a monster opponent to battle. Besides, tell that to parents like John Gilmore, executive director of Autism United, whose now-9-year-old son Luke—who was a typically developing child prior to receiving his 12-month vaccination—became autistic immediately afterward. The Gilmores are not alone.
But it’s not about autism, it’s about the safety of vaccinations. “Whether or not vaccines cause autism is still an ongoing unresolved issue,” says Gilmore. “Regardless, we know for a fact that vaccines can cause a wide variety of injuries. The government has even set up a vaccine injury program. Parents have a right to be concerned.”
However, the law in New York regarding vaccinations is very clear: Children must meet immunization standards before entering public school, or they can’t attend school. Humayan Chaudhry, D.O., the Suffolk County health commissioner is insistent about the efficacy of vaccines. “Vaccines work and should be administered on schedule,” he says, citing the dramatic decline in potentially deadly diseases like measles.
In New York, children must be immunized against poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, varicella, hepatitis B, pertussis, tetanus, and, where applicable, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and pneumococcal disease.
Unless, that is, they have a medical or religious exemption.
There are currently 48 states that grant religious exemptions, often no questions asked. The parent writes a letter and it is generally accepted. Not in New York. In the Empire State a sincerity hearing (also known as a “truth hearing”)—sorry, meeting— is required. The other state is Illinois.
What this sincerity meeting entails is well observed in one that was videotaped in BBP in September, 2008, that is making the rounds on YouTube conducted by Cohen, a partner in Cooper, Sapir & Cohen, based in Melville, and held to determine Rita and Ron Palma’s sincerity. Basically, Cohen grills Palma and her husband, snaps at them when he doesn’t like their answer, cuts them off when he has something to say, and yells and bellows depending on how deep under his skin the Palmas are getting. But that’s not the unsettling part. The problem here is what he is asking them. It is all about their religious beliefs, which is at the heart of First Amendment rights. As in, “What is God’s plan as far as you’re concerned?”, which he asks about a half dozen times.
The Palmas’ lawyer, Robert Krakow, is also the subject of Cohen’s disdain, as Krakow often stops the interrogator with statements like, “That’s inappropriate.”
It is the ugliest kind of inquisition to be privy to. As this reporter observed people watching the video, three responses became clear: It is a disturbing example of abuse of power. It is an insult to common sense and decency. And it is just plain scary.
Here is this lawyer, with no theological or psychiatric background, seemingly badgering this mother of three, so that he might determine her religious conviction.
“There is no constitutional, defensible way that someone like Mr. Cohen can question and reach a judgment and conclusion about these types of things,” says Gilmore, who has seen the video, and has worked with other parents involved in similar hearings. “You’d expect that from the Taliban. Not school districts.”
Rita Palma is extremely articulate (this is her second round with Cohen after a previous hearing and months of paperwork going back and forth) and she has turned her fight into her livelihood—she started My Kids Choice, a parents’ advocacy group. But the bigger question seems to be how ordinary parents might defend themselves against an argument that many believe isn’t well-founded in the first place.
Cohen: “Do you blame God for illness?”
Or: “Didn’t God provide the wherewithal for us to create vaccines?”
Or: “Do you talk to God?”
What are questions like this doing in a public school setting?
At one point, the principal of James Wilson Young Middle School, where Palma’s children attended, Susan Haske, whom Palma described as “emotion-free” at the hearing, actually asks Ms. Palma to expand on a psalm she quoted.
“We were treated worse than common criminals,” says Palma. “How can anyone judge another’s relationship with God? We were interrogated like we committed a crime.”
“Just outrageous,” says Krakow.
Brush up on your Bible studies if you want to attend a Bayport school…
In The Beginning…
The law that everyone is fighting over is actually grounded in local history. Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School District was a 1986 case brought by an L.I. doctor who didn’t want to immunize his kids—Alan Sherr, who now runs the thriving holistic healthcare practice, Northport Wellness Center.
Nowadays, children are bombarded with vaccines. Within 24 hours of birth, children receive a hepatitis B vaccine. Hepatitis B is contracted through drug use or sexual intercourse. Why a newborn receives that vaccine at such a vulnerable stage is mind boggling. The pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine is given at 2 months old, and four more times throughout the next two years of a child’s life, in a combined vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT). Another required vaccine is the one for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), which is administered at 1 year old and then followed by a second dose. All in all, by the time a child enters school, they have received 18 to 22 vaccinations incorporating about 56 different antigens (substances that prompt the generation of antibodies) over a period of four years.
“I tried to create an opportunity to not vaccinate my kids,” Sherr tells the Press. Sherr’s anti-vaccination stance was grounded in his scientific and medical background and beliefs. At that time there was no religious sincerity exemption; a parent had to belong to a recognized religious group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 7th Day Adventists or Christian Scientists. But since there were no grounds for a philosophic—conscientious—objection, he decided to join a “mail order” religious group, the Missionary Temple at Large, Universal Religious Brotherhood. The school district saw through the ploy and fought Sherr and another local family (they were patients of Sherr’s) whose religious belief was bona fide, and refused their request.
Sherr and the other couple, Louis and Valery Levy, brought suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. While the Levys were allowed their exemption, Sherr was not. But something very important was gained. The court found that New York’s limitation of the religious exemption “violated both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.” The law was changed to a third option: religious sincerity—the very battle that Palma and other New York parents are now facing.
“A religious belief is not so far from a philosophic belief,” Sherr reminds us. Nineteen states now allow philosophic exemptions.
“What they’re doing in Bayport is completely illegal and it infringes on the right to freedom of speech and religion,” Sherr says.
James March, as the president of the BBP board of education, might seem like the bad guy to some, but he is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. He needs to follow the law, but it’s a law he says he’s not fully behind. In fact, he agrees, in part, with Sherr.
“The state has put this in the board of education’s hands to determine religious and medical exemptions and the need to submit proper inoculations forms,” he explains. “I personally, and I can speak for the board of education, I would rather not be determining this. Is it [the hearings] subjective? Yes.”
And here come the nagging questions.
“Are there any theologians on the board?” he’s asked.
“Any psychiatrists or forensic experts to determine sincerity and demeanor [amazingly, a judgment call that must be made in a sincerity hearing]?”
“I know the very negative comments we have received after people saw the video,” March explains, “especially from the Bible Belt. We’ve been called Nazis, the devil. But I’m just the face of this and I’m just following the law. I am very sensitive to these people’s concerns. Even Rita Palma’s.”
Palma’s reaction: “That’s even worse, if you are sensitive to it, and let it go on the way it’s been going on. The entire Board should resign. They are abusing their power and wasting taxpayers’ money. Shame on them for supporting this. And for the members who do not support this, more shame for not standing up against something that is so grossly wrong. The whole world seems to disagree with this heavy-handed approach.”
And God Created Man
One person who seems determined to follow the law is David Cohen. And well he should, it’s his job.
He has been conducting hearings like this for 10 years, he says. BBP, by the way, has an extremely high appeals rate of close to 20 percent from parents who feel they’ve been wronged.
“They [BBP] have one of the most stringent testing policies,” explains Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Wading River), who is working on legislation to change the religious sincerity laws.
But until then, it is Cohen’s mandate to assess religious sincerity and the parents’ demeanor.
After watching the video, one wonders where the limits are as Cohen asks the Palmas very personal questions about their religious beliefs that are obviously upsetting, insulting and infuriating Rita. There is a blur between First Amendment rights and the division of church and state. Ron Palma and Krakow, who keeps a balanced, cool head throughout, are also losing patience.
The nagging questions return: “Mr. Cohen, are you an expert in theology?” this reporter asks.
“Are you a psychiatrist or forensic expert?”
“No. I’m a lawyer.
“Believe me,” Cohen explains, “the school board would be very happy if these decisions were not made by them.”
“But what about you? Would you be happy?”
“Me, too,” he answers.
Cohen isn’t too popular in some circles around the Island. Stephanie Moses, who also had a sincerity hearing at BBP, calls him “disrespectful, arrogant, curt, intimidating and disdainful.
“It’s un-American,” she says of her treatment.
Her request, like the Palmas, was rejected by the board, and she has since enrolled her child in Catholic school; ironic, since she didn’t pass Cohen’s “religious sincerity” threshold.
“He’s a self-absorbed, arrogant guy who feels he is God, savior, and judge,” says Sherr of Cohen. “It’s unfortunate because his role is to fulfill the law.”
But like sand in an oyster, because of his rejections and perceived insensitivity, and so many challenging his decisions, it could lead to some good news, like what happened with Sherr.
“It can cause the law to be challenged,” says Sherr.
Even March seems to hold his tongue when the subject of Cohen comes up.
“Yes, I’ve seen the video. I know. It looks brutal. Callous. Insensitive. But it was edited,” he says.
Alessi’s take: “It’s outrageous, They have a very onerous testing process.” But Alessi has some thoughts about Palma as well. He feels she didn’t serve her cause, because her religious defense wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
“It’s not like parents who have a cut-and-dry religious argument like, ‘I object to vaccines because the rubella vaccine is made of aborted fetuses.’”
One Nassau-based education advocacy lawyer who has dealt with Cohen says, “David Cohen is evil. He attacks people.”
“Channel your anger at the legislature, not me,” says Cohen about parents and others angry with his performance. “I would completely do away with what we are doing in Bayport. It would make things easier for everybody.”
And that seems to be what the district is headed toward. Their new policy, like that enjoyed by the majority of people in the country, is that religious sincerity requests would be submitted in writing, and only if there were outstanding questions would there be a hearing. Oops, meeting.
But why are people so angry at Cohen? “This is the way it is,” says Cohen. “Sometimes unpleasant questions are necessary.”
Let There Be Light
The argument between pro- and anti-vaccine advocates couldn’t be any more black and white. Pro-vaccine advocates point to the studies that consistently report there is no connection between vaccines and autism. Anti-vaccine advocates point to anecdotal cases, their own studies and the high number of vaccine-injury compensatory monetary awards. They also address the very powerful lobbies that support many of these studies.
March: “Some organizations out there say that there is a connection [between vaccines and disorders like autism], but medical facts have proven otherwise.” But whose medical facts?
The BBP’s board chief, March, says, “We are adamant about protecting the people in our schools, the students, the staff, women who might be pregnant or people who have compromised immune systems because of illness or chemotherapy.”
Sherr, though, says that’s just the point: “But those people should be vaccinated already, right? Why should they worry unless they don’t have faith in the vaccines? And then why should I vaccinate my children with something that they don’t have trust in and that I think could harm them?”
Dr. Chaudhry, Suffolk’s health commissioner, disagrees. “The focus is on population health. You’re protecting the school, town, county, state, country.”
But vaccinations, some say, can help spread disease. “The most dangerous person to be near is a freshly vaccinated person,” says Palma. “They can spread the virus for a month and a half.”
There has been a recent epidemic of pertussis on the Island. How can that be if so many children—as much as 90 percent—are vaccinated?
Vaccinations are effective, yes, but are they protective? “No,” says Sherr, who believes vaccinations are the cause for the rise in prevalence of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile diabetes, allergies, asthma, autism, learning disabilities and other developmental problems.
It’s important to note that most organizations and individuals concerned about vaccines are not completely against them. They want less, and not so many grouped together at the same time as they are with MMR and DPT vaccines.
“Many people feel you need a predisposition for the vaccine to have harmful affects,” says Autism United’s Gilmore, who wants to make it clear that he and his organization are not saying that vaccines need to be abolished.
“Just be more responsible about them,” he says.
Marc Alessi is a young rising star in the New York State Assembly. When he was elected, he was a brand-new father who was being bombarded by information about whether vaccines were good or harmful. When elected, parents came to him with the same concerns.
So he started doing his homework.
He discovered that while there were no clear answers regarding the connection between autism and vaccines, one thing that was sure was that there were way too many documented cases of vaccine injury.
“There was evidence that DPT might have caused SIDS,” Alessi says, “and that the asthma epidemic could be caused by invading a young and susceptible immune system.
“I don’t want to scare parents off from getting their kids vaccinated, but I can’t rest easy if there’s a possibility that a population of children are being injured by being vaccinated.”
The fact is, the federally sponsored Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), operated through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), lists thousands of documented vaccine-injury cases, adding up to $1.9 billion worth of awards paid out by the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, paid for by vaccine manufacturing companies. The former Federal Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D., has stated that he believed the number of vaccine injuries listed on VAERS is only 10 percent of the actual number of cases.
Alessi’s predecessor, Assemblywoman Patricia Acampora, had been working on a philosophic exemption bill, and Alessi took the ball and ran with it.
There are three bills in Albany that would address the problem of vaccinations and sincerity hearings.
Alessi has proposed a bill, A4886, that would allow a philosophic exemption. In other words, if a parent has a conscientious belief against vaccinating his or her child, whether secular or religious, they can get an exemption. Twenty large states like California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Michigan, have a law like this. A majority of the American population has this right.
Alessi’s bill is in both the state’s Assembly and Senate, and many on both sides of the argument, from Sherr to March, are hoping it will pass.
Two other bills are in the works in the Assembly, and both are by Health Committee head Richard N. Gottfried (D-Manhattan). A880 would give more weight to a doctor’s note, for a medical exemption, and A883 would shut down religious hearings altogether. Schools would have no authority to question a parent’s religious sincerity.
Alessi doesn’t care whose bill passes, as long as one does, but he’s hopeful that it could be as early as the end of April or as late as June, when the Assembly session ends, that the legislation passes.
Sherr is not so optimistic. “Look at who’s against these bills,” he says: the powerful medical lobby and those deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies. “They’re a formidable group to fight,” says Sherr.
As far as Palma goes, she’ll keep fighting the fight. Her second “truth test” was denied in October 2008 and she provided a note from her doctor stating that her son already had pertussis and could be harmed from the shot. The district rejected it. “I had him tested for titers [indicators of antibodies] and handed that in.” Two weeks ago, she received a letter informing her that her son wouldn’t be permitted in school.
“I will never let this go,” says Palma. “While it has not all been pleasant, I would not change anything. God gave me healthy kids—I’m paying Him back.”
It’s been five years since Stephanie Moses’ case, and she’s still enraged by her treatment by Cohen. “Who was he to play God?” she asks.
We might not all agree about whether vaccines cause autism or whether unvaccinated children provide a health threat in school, but what seems to be universally agreed upon is that two things must go: sincerity hearings and David Cohen.