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Georgia Supreme Court Sets Out Principles For Determining Sincerity Of Religious Objections – Trials & Appeals & Compensation

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In a recent case lying at the intersection of parents’
rights, religious beliefs, foster care, and health care, the
Georgia Supreme Court reviewed the principles for determining the
sincerity of religious beliefs. The children in the case of In
the Interest of C.C.
, were in the custody of the state
Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), and the state
wished to vaccinate them against COVID-19. During a
regularly-scheduled dependency review, the parents objected, citing
religious beliefs against such vaccinations. Their attorneys did
not develop the record well in the juvenile court, simply eliciting
a few conclusory statements regarding their objections and
religious observances.

The juvenile court denied the claim, finding that the
parents’ religious beliefs were not sincere:

[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no longer active, are against vaccination by personal philosophical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 [the father] is a self-proclaimed
conspiracy theorist.

The state Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the juvenile
court had used the wrong standard for judging sincerity. It noted,
first, that “[e]ven 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.”
The Court then noted several factors that lower courts should
consider in such situations.

First, courts should consider whether there is a religious
component to the beliefs, even if they are partly secular. The
state Court quoted a federal court’s statement that “a
belief can be both secular and religious. The categories are not
mutually exclusive.” Then state Court set out various factors
that lower courts can consider, “including (but not limited
to) how long the [parents] have asserted their professed religious
belief, how much they know about it, and their reliance on
‘religious literature and teachings supporting the

The state Supreme Court also noted the importance of consistency
in asserting a religious basis for the objection, although not
necessarily consistency in religious observances. Quoting another
federal court, the state court pointed out, “[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?'”

Finally the Court noted that the factors it mentioned are not
exhaustive, but “are meant merely as aids” to the inquiry
of whether the parents were credible in claiming that their
objections to the vaccinations were religious. This open-ended
inquiry no doubt will cause some frustration in lower courts, but
it is a signal that the analysis does not fit into neat categories.
The opinion, however, does set out the guardrails within which
courts must analyze this sensitive question.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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