On August 3, 2015, the Illinois General Assembly, pursuant to Public Act 99-0249, effectively amended Section 27-8.1 of the Illinois School Code, 105 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq., regarding health examinations and immunizations. Specifically, Public Act 99-0249 amended Section 27-8.1 to include more stringent requirements as to a parent’s or legal guardian’s statement of objection for health examinations and/or immunizations. See 105 ILCS 5/27-8.1(8). The new requirements are reviewed below and are effective for the current 2015-2016 school year, subject to guidance provided by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
Certificate of Religious Exemption
Generally, parents or legal guardians maintain the right to object to and keep their child(ren) from undergoing “health, dental, or eye examinations or any part thereof, to immunizations, or to vision and hearing screening tests” on religious grounds upon presenting a valid objection to the local school authority. That said, prior to Public Act 99-0249, parents and legal guardians only had to submit a signed statement of objection, detailing the grounds for said objection. The amended law now requires that parents or legal guardians objecting to health examinations and immunizations present to their local school authority,
[A] signed Certificate of Religious Exemption detailing the grounds for objection and the specific immunizations, tests, or examinations to which they object. The grounds for objection must set forth the specific religious belief that conflicts with the examination, test, immunization, or other medical intervention.
105 ILCS 5/27-8.1(8). Under the Public Act, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) was tasked with creating the official Certificate of Religious Exemption, which can be found at http://dph.illinois.gov/sites/default/files/forms/religious-exemption-form-081815-040816.pdf. The following are the additional requirements of the Certificate of Religious Exemption:
- The form must be signed by the authorized examining health care provider responsible for the performance of the child’s health examination. The attending health care provider’s signature affirms that he/she provided education to the parent or legal guardian on the required examinations, the benefits of immunizations and the health risks to the student and to the community of communicable diseases for which immunization is required in Illinois. The health care provider is not responsible for affirming the parent’s or legal guardian’s religious beliefs as a basis of the objection.
- The parent or legal guardian must affirm that they understand the school’s exclusion policies in the case of a vaccine-preventable disease outbreak or exposure.
- In order to receive an exemption to a health examination or immunization requirement, the parent or legal guardian must indicate each vaccination or examination exemption being requested and the religious grounds for each request. Essentially, a blanket statement for all health examinations and immunizations may not result in the requested exemption.
- The Certificate form must be presented to the local school authority prior to the child entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade; and, a separate form must be submitted for each child for which the parent or legal guardian is requesting an exemption.
While Public Act 99-0249 does not require that the religious objection of the parent or legal guardian be directed by the tenets of an established religious organization, “general philosophical or moral reluctance to allow physical examinations, eye examinations, immunizations, vision and hearing screenings, or dental examinations does not provide a sufficient basis for an exemption to statutory requirements.” 105 ILCS 5/27-8.1(8) (Emphasis added.) Ultimately, the local school authority is responsible for determining the validity of the religious exemption presented. Further, the local school authority is obligated to inform the parent or legal guardian of the exclusion procedures per the IDPH regulations (see 77 Illinois Administrative Code 690 et seq.) that his/her child is subject to at the time the objection is presented.
Subsequent to the effective date of Public Act 99-0249, on August 18, 2015, ISBE published a Guidance Document entitled Back-to-School Immunization Guidance and Best Practices, Fall 2015. According to ISBE’s guidance, for purposes of the utilization of the Certification of Religious Exemption for the 2015-2016 school year, ISBE recognized that most parents have likely already completed their child’s required physical exam and immunization requirements, or submitted their religious objection letter, for this current school year. Therefore, ISBE is not requiring that parents or legal guardians return to their health care providers to complete the new form for the October 15th statutory deadline. See 105 ILCS 5/27-8.1(5). Rather, the form must be in use by October 16, 2015. Accordingly, beginning October 16th, any students who enroll after October 15th or who have not yet submitted the required proof of immunization must complete and provide the Certificate of Religious Exemption form if the parent or legal guardian wishes to object to health examination and vaccination requirements on the basis of religious beliefs. See ISBE’s Guidance Document (2019) for more details.