Religious Vaccine Exemption Bills Spark Debate Across the United States
Ongoing legislative efforts to remove religious exemptions from vaccinations have led to protests by vocal anti-vaccination advocates, who claim that the bills limit the right of parents to care for their children.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that more than 88% of adults support requiring healthy children to receive vaccines in order to attend school to avoid the potential risk to others.1
However, ongoing legislative efforts to remove religious exemptions from vaccinations have led to protests by anti-vaccination advocates, who claim that the bills limit the right of parents to care for their children.
A bill known as SB3668 has been put before the state Senate by Sen. Heather A. Steans (D-Chicago) seeking to remove the option for patients to refrain from vaccinating their children on religious grounds. The legislation would additionally remove most medical exemptions for vaccines that are required to attend school in the state.2
The bill would simultaneously allow minors aged 14 years and older to get vaccinated, “regardless of whether the minor’s parent or guardian consents,” the bill states. Should the bill pass, it would go into effect on July 1, 2022.3
“Vaccination is the best way to protect children from numerous disease that can cause severe illness and death. Last year, the United States responded to the worst outbreak of measles in 25 years, largely due to pockets of unvaccinated people,” Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, told CBS.4
In 2016, the state tightened the rules surrounding religious exemptions, requiring that health care providers sign off and verify that they had provided vaccine education. Despite these efforts, religious exemptions have increased for several vaccines, according to the Chicago Tribune. Exemptions based solely on personal or philosophical beliefs are not allowed in Illinois.2
A bill filed in the Illinois House earlier in February would require students to receive human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations when they enter the sixth grade and would require that the students complete the series of HPV vaccinations by the time they enter the ninth grade.2
New Jersey lawmakers were unable to vote on a bill to eliminate religion as a reason for vaccination exemption in public schoolchildren. The bill required state Senate approval before moving to the Assembly and finally to the governor, but it did not have the necessary 21 votes.5
“As immunization rates drop and outbreaks of preventable disease rise, I’m disappointed we were not able to vote on this vital legislation…Though I understand the passion of those opposed, fundamentally, this is not a personal choice and in society it is the duty of healthy members to work together to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” said state Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).6
According to a chart on New Jersey’s state website, 2.3% of kindergarteners and 1.7% of sixth graders have used the religious exemption in the 2018-2019 school year.7
The lack of votes puts any further consideration of bill S-2173/A3813 off until the next legislative session.5
A new bill filed in Connecticut sparked recent debate, as protestors gathered within the Legislative Office Building prior to committee voting. The bill would prohibit parents from citing religious or philosophical beliefs in refusing to vaccinate their children, as reported by the Hartford Courant.8,9
Opponents to the bill argue that the state’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children would be a violation of constitutional rights. However, in his opinion issued in May 2019, Attorney General William Tong said that the proposal was constitutional.10
“There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate, or suspend the religious exemption…in accordance with its well-settled power to protect the public safety and health,” Tong wrote in his opinion.10
Tong continued by explaining that the US Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the authority of states to “require and regulate immunizations for children.” The Connecticut Supreme Court has also upheld mandatory school immunizations, he continued in his statement.10
The Immunization Discussion
Support for vaccine exemptions persists despite previous studies that have erroneously linked vaccines to autism and the near-universal agreement among government health agencies and health care professionals that vaccines are safe and effective.
The CDC states that there is a 1 in 1 million chance of experiencing a serious reaction to a vaccine. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics has maintained its official stance that non-medical exemptions should be eliminated completely.11
Yet, for those who oppose the religious exemption bans, the issue is a matter of personal freedom.
“We need to have the ability in our country, if we find a commercial pharmaceutical product is not safe and effective as we’re being told it is, we should have the right to make informed consent to use the product,” Barbara Loe Fisher, president and co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Center, said to CNN.11
Currently, only 5 states in the United States do not allow non-medical exemptions for vaccines: New York, California, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Maine.12
- More Americans now see ‘very high’ preventive health benefits from measles vaccine [news release]. FactTank website. Published January 7, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/07/more-americans-now-see-very-high-preventive-health-benefits-from-measles-vaccine/. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Thayer, Kate. Religious Exemption for Vaccines Would be Dropped for Kids in Illinois Schools Under Proposed Law. 2nd Bill Would Require HPV Shots. Chicago Tribune. Published February 19, 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/ct-life-vaccine-legislation-hpv-religious-exemptions-tt-20200219-366ptm6hszfwlifaai6frq6zuu-story.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- SB3668. 101st General Assembly for the State of Illinois. Published February 14, 2020. http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/fulltext.asp?DocName=&SessionId=108&GA=101&DocTypeId=SB&DocNum=3668&GAID=15&LegID=125621&SpecSess=&Session=. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Garrand, Danielle. New Illinois Bill Aims to Remove Religious Exemptions for Vaccines In-State. CBS News. Published February 20, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/vaccine-bill-new-illinois-bill-aims-to-remove-religious-exemptions-for-vaccines-in-state/. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Haider, Monica. Future Uncertain for Bill That Would Eliminate Religion as a reason not to vaccinate public schoolchildren. CNN. Published January 13, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/13/health/new-jersey-vaccine-religion-vote/index.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Weinburg Statement on Vaccination Bill. Insider NJ. Published January 13, 2020. https://www.insidernj.com/press-release/weinberg-statement-on-vaccination-bill/. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Number and Percentage of Children with Religious Exemptions By Grade Type and County, New Jersey. NJ website. https://www.nj.gov/health/cd/documents/status_report/2019/all_schools_rel.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Blanco, Amanda. Anti-Vaccine Parents Pull All-Nighter in Protesting Vaccine Bill. Hartford Courant. Published February 20, 2020. https://www.courant.com/politics/hc-pol-vaccine-hearing-20200219-zhmhsfht4rdbdbdsbouq3binx4-story.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Carlesso, Jenna. Hundreds turn out to testify on plan to repeal CT’s religious vaccine exemption. The CT Mirror. Published February 19, 2020. https://ctmirror.org/2020/02/19/hundreds-turn-out-to-testify-on-plan-to-repeal-cts-religious-vaccine-exemption/. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- William Tong Opinion. Office of the Attorney General State of Connecticut. Published May 6, 2019. https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/AG/Opinions/2019/2019-01_religious-exemption.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- Andrew, Scottie. The Battle Between Science and Skepticism. CNN website. Published January 18, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/18/health/vaccine-laws-exemption-2020-trnd/index.html. Accessed February 24, 2020.
- States with Religious Philosophical Exemptions from Schools Immunization Requirements. NCSL website. Published January 3, 2020. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/school-immunization-exemption-state-laws.aspx. Accessed February 24, 2020.