States should remove religious vaccine exemption

Two states currently allow no exemption from childhood vaccinations based on religious beliefs: Mississippi and West Virginia. In California and Vermont, new laws take effect next summer that curtail the rights parents currently have to claim non-medical exemptions from laws requiring specified vaccines for students. We call on all states to enact similar legislation soon.

If Maryland, for example, were to follow California and disallow the religious exemption, it will take a step toward eliminating what, in practice, has become a way to avoid life-saving vaccines based on personal beliefs. Only 20 states specifically allow a philosophical exemption, but the religious exemption isn’t all that different.

Philosophical exemption laws, also known as the personal belief exemptions, allow parents to declare their children exempt from vaccinations if they merely object to immunizations because of personal, moral, or other beliefs. Removing this exemption has placed California and Vermont at the forefront of states working hard to protect the safety and lives of its children, and we hope other states follow their lead.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supported the law in California that eliminated the religious exemption, according to the academy’s website. “I hope that it causes parents to receive information about vaccines, to have conversations with their pediatrician and other health care professionals and rethink why they had concerns about vaccines,” state Sen Richard J Pan, MD, MPH, said, “(and) that they will become more open to listening to the actual science and facts and turn away from the misinformation that’s been peddled by too many people.”

One of those people, though, is a pediatrician who opposes California’s new law. “The best way to improve vaccination is not forcing parents to give vaccines against their will—it’s better education about the efficacy of vaccines, something I strive to do every day,” said Dr Kathleen Berchelmann, a pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, in an article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch. “All this California bill does is improve vaccination rates in schools, but what about every other public place? So the unvaccinated kids are out of school, but they’re still in the grocery store, and they are still at Disneyland.”

Status of Illinois’s religious exemption legislation

In Illinois, Senate Bill 1410 was sent to Gov Bruce Rauner on June 19, having passed both chambers in the General Assembly by large majorities earlier this year. The bill, if signed, would require the following:

  • Each public school district to make exemption data available to the public
  • Parents claiming religious exemptions to detail the objections for each immunization
  • Parents to obtain a health care provider’s signature
  • Parents to submit an exemption certificate before kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade

SB 1410 would also require officials at each school district to determine if the exemption request for each child constitutes a valid religious objection, since Illinois does not allow exemptions based on personal beliefs.

“In recent years, there has been a groundswell of parents who see vaccines as a harbinger of other diseases despite evidence to the contrary,” the Daily Herald quoted state Sen John Mulroe, Democrat of Chicago, as saying about SB 1410. “What we don’t want is someone’s personal beliefs putting other people at risk, which is often the case with vaccination exemptions.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.