Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst

The Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst is waiting for the commissioner of the New York Department of Education to clarify why the school would need to give a religious exemption a student in the school.

The latest incident in the three year saga involved Shulamith asking a Brooklyn federal court to bar the student from attending an art night program at the school.

The issue was first raised in the 2017-2018 school year when a Woodmere family asked for their daughters to be exempt from vaccination for measles on religious grounds. In 2018 the school denied their request and asked that the girls be fully vaccinated or leave the school.

State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia heard the request and ordered the school to allow the girls to attend pending her investigation into the issue.

According to Shulamith’s Attorney Philip Kalban of Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson LLP, the issue boils down to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine. The doctrine states that a court should refuse to decide a religious issue or defer to the relevant religious authority, in this case a Beis Din.

“It is Shulamith’s belief that all children should be vaccinated according to Jewish law” and those who are not vaccinated should not be attending the school, Kalban said. “The parents have taken their position based on their interpretation of Jewish law.”

“The Department of Education should be saying ‘We cannot settle this issue. This is a religious issue’,” said Kalban, who added that the doctrine is derived from the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The girls have been allowed to attend Shulamith while MaryEllen Elia decides on the issue. But last month, the school had an evening program for students and their families, which could include at-risk populations including infants, grandparents, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people in the audience. The school told the parents one of the girls was not allowed to attend the program. The family immediately appealed to the Department of Education to uphold the stay. Commissioner Elia ordered the school to allow the student to attend the program.

Shulamith then appealed to the Eastern District Court of New York federal court. The court granted the school’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the student from attending the program, but the larger issue of whether Shulamith can refuse students based on differing religious beliefs was not heard.

Kalban hopes the Department of Education will make its final decision on the issue this summer.


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