Last week, the Long Island Press ran a story on David Cohen, legal counsel for the Bayport-Blue Point (BBP) Union Free School District [“Playing God,” March 26] and his heavy-handed tactics while conducting so-called religious sincerity hearings. On the slippery precipice of First Amendment rights, these hearings are held to determine the “sincerity” of parents requesting an exemption from vaccinating their child on religious grounds. “Playing God” specifically referred to a hearing Cohen had with Rita and Ron Palma, which was videotaped and made public (www.tinyurl.com/sincerityhearing), and which revealed a very aggressive and seemingly insensitive Cohen questioning the Palmas about their religious beliefs. It was Round Two between Cohen and the Palmas. Other parents have complained about Cohen’s tactics as well.
Cohen acknowledged his tough tactics and said it was part of his job.
Only two states, New York and Illinois, require a sincerity hearing, and many school districts in these two states have a less stringent approach than BBP utilizes. In “Playing God,” the Press called for Cohen’s dismissal.
In breaking news, at presstime, the Press has just learned that at the April 14 business meeting of the BBP Board of Education, the BOE will recommend the termination of David Cohen and his Melville-based firm Cooper, Sapir & Cohen as the school district’s official counsel. James March, president of the BOE, cited budgetary reasons, and also said they were looking for a firm with more specific specialties, but one that specializes in special ed litigation.
“There should be a resolution on our business agenda to name a new law firm to take effect in the new school calendar year,” March told the Press. The change will not be official until July 7 when it’s taken up during the board’s reorganization meeting.
This is, of course, great news for people like the Palmas.
“Isn’t that nice that he’s gone?” says Palma. “And I hope that [“Playing God”] had something to do with that. And although that’s a really great start, the Board of Education needs to take a look at what they do. They were right there with him in all this.”
Robert Krakow, the Palmas’ lawyer at the videotaped BBP hearing, reacts, as well: “I would hope that the district is not doing this because of bad public relations, but rather as a new approach to parents’ rights in terms of vaccinations. There remains to be seen if this change will bring about a more respectful and fair policy of parents’ rights.”
March indicates that the new counsel will be more sensitive to handling religious exemptions (the district, he says, is also moving away from hearings altogether, and will allow requests in writing) and perhaps more specialized in the field. “We’re looking for a more open and shorter interview process,” he says.
But March still stands his ground. “Until New York State or federal law dictates otherwise,” he says, “the Board of Education will continue to fulfill its responsibility regarding required immunizations by reserving the right to verify sincerity and authenticity of claim.”
Cohen worked for the district for 11 years, says March, “and it will be difficult to part ways, because he did do some good things.”
Cohen was unavailable for comment. His law partner, Robert Sapir, said that Cohen was on vacation.
“If I’ve done nothing, at the very least I’ve maybe been part of getting rid of David Cohen,” says Rita Palma, who at this point, still must have her children vaccinated by the start of next school year.