April 2019 Church & State Magazine - April 2019

States Consider Ending Religious Exemptions From Vaccine Requirements

  Rob Boston

In the wake of measles outbreaks in several states, legislators are considering bills that would limit or end religion-based exemptions from mandatory vaccines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 17 cases of measles outbreaks in the United States last year. Washington state was hit hard, and similar cases occurred in New York and New Jersey. State officials say the problem was exacerbated by high numbers of unvaccinated children. 

Washington is among 47 states that allow parents with religious objections to opt out of vaccines for their children, but a state representative has called for tightening the exemption, reported The Washington Post. Similar measures are pending in New Jersey, New York, Iowa, Maine and Vermont, The Post reported. Seventeen states also allow “personal or philosophical” objections to vaccines as well, and those exemptions are also receiving new scrutiny. In Washington state, a House of Representatives committee in Feb­ru­ary voted to abolish the personal and philosophical exemptions.

California did away with most religious and personal exemptions to vaccines in 2014 after an outbreak at Disneyland. Under the state’s new law, only children who are home-schooled can qualify for an exemption. The Post reported that it’s not known how many parents nationwide request religion-based exemptions from vaccines. In Washington, the number was small at just 0.3 percent. Other parents received exemptions for personal reasons, with some of them arguing that they believe vaccines are dangerous or ineffective.

Vaccination advocates worry that parents will take advantage of the religious exemption when their objection is really grounded in other areas. “As the anti-vaccine movement grows in strength and power, they could use the religious exemption loophole,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Right now I don’t see it as significant as an issue.”

Policies for getting a religion-based exemption from vaccines vary from state to state. In some states, it’s as simple as signing a form; but in others, parents are expected to write a letter explaining their beliefs.

In Rockland County, N.Y., which has been hit hard by a measles epidemic, local officials have banned unvaccinated children from attending any school where the vaccination rate is below 95 percent. Last month, the parents of more than 40 unvaccinated children sued to force a Waldorf school to readmit them, but a federal court disagreed.

U.S. District Court Judge Vincent Briccetti ruled that it wasn’t in “public interest” to let the children return to the school, reported The Washington Post.

Measles had been all but eradicated from the United States until the recent outbreaks. This year, 159 cases have been reported. There have been no deaths so far in the United States, but the disease can be fatal for children, and measles deaths have been reported in European and African nations.

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