The Volokh Conspiracy

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Religion and the Law

Georgia Supreme Court on Sincerity and Religious Exemptions

An unusually detailed discussion of what factors court should consider in deciding whether a religious exemption request is sincere (generally a threshold requirement for the request to stand any chance of prevailing).


From In the Interest of C.C., decided yesterday by the Georgia Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Presiding Justice Nels Peterson:

The Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is the temporary custodian of Appellants John and Brittani Chandler's three children. {The Lumpkin County Juvenile Court temporarily removed the Chandlers' children into DFCS's custody on January 6, 2021. The Chandlers consented to an adjudication that the children were dependent within the meaning of OCGA § 15-11-2 (22), and that it was contrary to the welfare of the children to be returned to a home of a parent at that time.}

The Chandlers argued that, even though DFCS had temporary custody, they were entitled to "object on religious grounds to DFCS's immunization of their children," under Georgia law and the U.S. Constitution; but the juvenile court rejected that claim, partly based on a finding that the Chandlers' religious objections were insincere:

[T]he Court finds that [the Chandlers'] argument that vaccination of the dependent children by the Department violates their free exercise of religion is specious at best. The Court finds that [the Chandlers] have not established by a preponderance of the evidence that they have a religious objection or even observe a particular religion. Contrary to, the evidence shows that they previously attended church but are no longer active, are against vaccination by personal philosophical choice based at least in part on an alleged perception after the oldest was vaccinated and that [John] is a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist.

Wrong approach, the Georgia Supreme Court held:

Even if the Chandlers do not "observe a particular religion" or attend church consistently, and even if their objection to vaccination is partly secular, they may still be able to identify a religious belief that they sincerely hold and that would be violated by the vaccination of their children. See Frazee v. Illinois Dep't of Emp. Sec. (1989) ("[W]e reject the notion that to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause, one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization."); Wiggins v. Sargent (8th Cir. 1985) (noting, in First Amendment case, that "a belief can be both secular and religious"). The juvenile court's sincerity finding apparently rested at least in part on an assumption to the contrary; this prevents us from affirming this ruling…. We therefore remand this case for the juvenile court to apply the proper standard in deciding whether the Chandlers have raised a sincere religious objection.

In fairness to the juvenile court, the proper standard is not easily reducible to a simple formula; accordingly, we offer the following guidance drawn from federal precedent regarding how to evaluate religious sincerity. Ultimately, the juvenile court must determine whether the Chandlers' religious objection to the vaccination of their children is "truly held." The juvenile court's inquiry "must be handled with a light touch, or 'judicial shyness.'" Moussazadeh v. Tex. Dept. of Crim. Justice (5th Cir. 2012) (applying federal statute). The court should "sh[y] away from attempting to gauge how central a sincerely held belief is to the believer's religion." Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ. (11th Cir. 2007) (First Amendment case). And it must bear in mind that "a belief can be both secular and religious. The categories are not mutually exclusive." Wiggins. Thus, the juvenile court will have to parse out whether the Chandlers' objection is at least partly religiously motivated, as opposed to being entirely motivated by secular concerns. See United States v. Quaintance (10th Cir. 2010) (interpreting a federal statute incorporating constitutional standards); Penwell v. Holtgeerts (9th Cir. 2010) (per curiam); Doswell v. Smith (4th Cir. 1998); United States v. DeWitt, 95 F3d 1374, 1376 (8th Cir. 1996).

The Chandlers' characterization of their objection as religious is not determinative of their sincerity. See Ackerman v. Washington (6th Cir. 2021) (interpreting federal statute). The juvenile court can weigh various factors, including (but not limited to) how long the Chandlers have asserted their professed religious belief, how much they know about it, and their reliance on "religious literature and teachings supporting the belief[.]" Ackerman. Whether the Chandlers have wavered in their actions related to vaccination "also appears to be relevant[.]" Id. So is whether they have been consistent and transparent in indicating that they have a religiously motivated objection to vaccination. See Friedman v. Clarkstown Cent. Sch. Dist. (2d Cir. 2003) ("We note particularly, as did the district court, evidence that plaintiff never described her religious beliefs as the basis for her refusal to immunize to her son's pediatricians, her lack of forthrightness in answering the questions of the superintendent and the district court about the basis for her objections, and the changing nature of her objections over the course of this litigation. … [T]he record in this case suggests to us that plaintiff does not in fact hold religious objections to immunization ….").

But the juvenile court should also be cautious in affording more than a little weight to evidence that the Chandlers were inconsistent in visibly living out their religious beliefs; for example, the frequency of the family's church attendance. See id. ("[W]e recognize that religious beliefs may develop over time and that people may transgress religious beliefs that are nonetheless sincerely held …."); Ackerman (holding that a sincere believer does not lose his ability to assert religious rights "merely because he is not completely scrupulous in his observance; for where would religion be without its backsliders, penitents, and prodigal sons?" (quoting Grayson v. Schuler, 666 F3d 450, 454 (7th Cir. 2012) (interpreting federal statute)).

In sum, the juvenile court's task is ultimately to assess whether the Chandlers are credible in asserting that their objection to the vaccination of their children is religiously motivated. See Snyder v. Murray City Corp. (10th Cir. 1997) (observing in First Amendment case that "[t]he inquiry into the sincerity of a free-exercise plaintiff's religious beliefs is almost exclusively a credibility assessment …."); see also Int'l Soc. for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Barber (2d Cir. 1981) (observing in First Amendment case that key issue was whether religious belief was asserted "in good faith"). The considerations identified above are meant merely as aids to that inquiry.

If, after applying the proper standard to the existing record, the juvenile court finds that the Chandlers failed to carry their burden of showing that their objection to their children being vaccinated was motivated by a sincere religious belief, then it should deny their claims with no further analysis. If it finds that the Chandlers have carried their burden on this point, then the court may resolve the merits of their claims based on its previous order [which had concluded that the Chandlers would lose as a legal matter in any event even if their claims had been sincere -EV] or, at the discretion of the court, may do additional analysis on the merits.

And before that, the court also discussed why sincerity is indeed the threshold for such claims of exemption (a familiar principle in religious exemption law):

The sincerity of the Chandlers' religious beliefs is a necessary element of their First Amendment claims. See Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Emp. Sec. (1989) ("Our judgments in [previous First Amendment free exercise of religion cases] rested on the fact that each of the claimants had a sincere belief that religion required him or her to refrain from [what the government required of them] …. Because [a claimant in one such case] unquestionably had a sincere belief that his religion prevented him from doing [what the government required], he was entitled to invoke the protection of the Free Exercise Clause…. There is no doubt that only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Purely secular views do not suffice. Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held. States are clearly entitled to assure themselves that there is an ample predicate for invoking the Free Exercise Clause."). Their claim that OCGA § 15-11-30 is void for vagueness is also rooted in their asserted religious beliefs, because they argue that the statute is void for vagueness as applied to cases where parents have religious objections to vaccinations. And a party raising an as-applied vagueness claim has standing to assert only his own, actual rights, not hypothetical situations or the rights of others….

Religious sincerity is necessary for the Chandlers to pursue their statutory claim, too. OCGA § 15-11-30 provides that legal custodians of children—such as DFCS in relation to the Chandlers' children—have "the right to determine the nature of the care and treatment of such child, including ordinary medical care … subject to … the remaining rights and duties of such child's parent or guardian." The Chandlers argue that the remaining rights and duties recognized by OCGA § 15-11-30 include "the right to a religious exemption to immunization." … Unlike some other statutes that require only a sworn affidavit of religious beliefs, no language in OCGA § 15-11-30 relieves religious objectors from the obligation to prove sincerity to a court empowered to evaluate their credibility. Sincerity, then, is a prerequisite to the Chandlers' statutory arguments as well.

In observing that sincerity is a necessary foundation for the Chandlers' claims, we do not mean to suggest that a court must always make a determination as to sincerity before considering the remainder of a religion-based claim. Courts often assume the sincerity of a professed religious belief before rejecting claims that clearly fail on other grounds, partly because sincerity can be much harder to analyze than the merits of the claims themselves. But here, the opposite appears to be the case: the Chandlers' claims are novel, whereas the trial court already expressed serious doubts about the sincerity of their beliefs. Under these circumstances, we decline to resolve the difficult and consequential merits of the Chandlers' claims before the juvenile court has properly addressed the preliminary question of sincerity….

Parts of the court's analysis suggested that, if the Chandlers were found to be sincere, at least some of the Justices might be open to their legal arguments; but that is an issue that would be taken up on a later appeal.