World

New York State eliminates religious exemption to vaccine requirements

New York State eliminated the religious exemption to vaccine requirements for schoolchildren Thursday, amid the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades.

Move follows New York City's worst measles outbreak in decades

New York State has eliminated the religious exemption for childhood vaccines. (Lindsey Wasson/File Photo/Reuters)

New York State eliminated the religious exemption to vaccine requirements for schoolchildren Thursday, amid the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades.

The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly voted Thursday to repeal the exemption, which allows parents to cite religious beliefs to forego getting their child the vaccines required for school enrolment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signed the measure minutes after the final vote. The law takes effect immediately but will give unvaccinated students up to 30 days after they enter a school to show they've had the first dose of each required immunization.

Similar exemptions are allowed in 46 states, though lawmakers in several of them are also considering the elimination of the waiver.

"I'm not aware of anything in the Torah, the Bible, the Koran or anything else that suggests you should not get vaccinated," said Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz, the bill's Assembly sponsor. "If you choose to not vaccinate your child, therefore potentially endangering other children ... then you're the one choosing not to send your children to school."

"We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis," said Democratic Sen. Brad Hoylman, and the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. "The atrocious peddlers of junk science and fraudulent medicine who we know as anti-vaxxers have spent years sowing unwarranted doubt and fear, but it is time for legislators to confront them head on."

The new exemption will not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children gathered at New York's Capitol before the vote to protest what several called an assault on religious freedom.

"People came to this country to get away from exactly this kind of stuff," said Stan Yung, a Long Island attorney who has three children.

No effect on state medical exemption

Supporters of the new law say religious beliefs about vaccines shouldn't eclipse scientific evidence that they work, noting the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the right to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. During the Assembly's floor debate, supporters brought up scourges of the past that were defeated in the U.S. through vaccines.

"I'm old enough to have been around when polio was a real threat," said Democratic Assemblyperson Deborah Glick, "I believe in science ... Your personal opinions, which may be based on junk science, do not trump the greater good."

Supporters also suggest some parents may be claiming the religious exemption for their children even though their opposition is actually based on misguided claims about scientifically discredited dangers of vaccines.

The law will not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.

Cuomo told reporters Wednesday that he believes public health — and the need to protect those who cannot get vaccinated because for medical reasons — outweighs the concerns about religious freedom.

"I understand freedom of religion," he told reporters Wednesday. "I have heard the anti-vaxxers' theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk."

The U.S. is facing its worst outbreak of the illness in decades, with the majority of the 1,000 cases in New York's Orthodox Jewish communities. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Federal health officials said last week that this year's U.S. measles epidemic has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years. The majority of cases are from outbreaks in New York in Orthodox Jewish communities.

The nation last saw this many cases in 1992, when more than 2,200 were reported.

Legislation is pending in several state capitols to eliminate their version of the religious exemption.

California removed personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in both public and private schools in 2015, after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada. Maine ended its religious exemption earlier this year.

Mississippi and West Virginia also do not allow religious exemptions.

Once common in the U.S., measles became rare after vaccination campaigns that started in the 1960s. A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 cases a year.