Bill to end non-medical vaccine opt-outs heads to governor

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine's Legislature sent a bill to the governor's desk Thursday that would eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions for required vaccinations, amid growing concerns that abuse of such opt-outs is helping to fuel outbreaks.

The state Senate voted 19-16 to enact the bill, which has received support from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' administration. The legislation would end non-medical vaccine opt-outs by 2021 for students at public and private schools and universities, including nursery schools, and for health care facility employees.

Maine would join California, Mississippi and West Virginia to become the fourth state without religious exemptions for vaccine requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states are considering similar measures in the face of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases — including the worst measles outbreak the U.S. has seen in decades. Some allege that religious exemptions have been abused by those who believe vaccines are harmful despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Maine has one of the highest rates of non-medical vaccine exemptions in the nation, and health officials say they appear to be rising. They note that high opt-out rates endanger children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons. Many have pointed to the fact that whopping cough, for which there is a vaccine, is more prominent in Maine than in most other states as evidence of the risks of numerous exemptions.

But opponents of the legislation say it infringes on parental rights and stigmatizes children who remain unvaccinated. Maine's Democratic-led Legislature debated the bill for hours in sessions that were at times emotional in recent weeks as people on both sides of the issue flocked to the Statehouse to let their views be known.

Thursday vote follows the state's first confirmed case of measles since 2017 that officials say involves a vaccinated child who has since recovered. In rare cases, people who are vaccinated can still catch the disease.

"The measles case didn't spread farther as far as we know so far," said Democratic Sen. Heather Sanborn. "That's a victory, but it's one that we could lose given the very low rates of kindergarten immunization for kids entering in Maine."

The state doesn't know exactly how many students are not vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons, but the Department of Education has estimated as many as 5% — or 9,032 students — may have non-medical exemptions.

The percentage of kindergarten students with religious and philosophical exemptions from vaccines rose from 5% in the 2017-2018 school year to 5.6% in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical exemptions increased from 0.3% to 0.6%.

State officials say such evidence suggests Maine is falling below the "herd" immunity level of 95% immunization.

Sarah Staffiere, a 40-year-old biology instructor at Colby College, expressed relief at Thursday's vote. Her 5-year-old son, Gabriel, has a rare autoimmune condition treated by a drug that suppresses his immune system.

"My son's ability to fight a meningococcal infection is a thousand times worse than someone with a full immune system," said Staffiere, of Waterville. "It's not just that he would get sick, he would die."

But Tessa Burpee, of Brewer, said she felt the bill unfairly infringes on her Christian beliefs and would limit her options for educating her daughter, whom she currently homeschools.

"My church doesn't teach that vaccinations are wrong but my interpretation of the Bible is that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," said Burpee, 45, whose 10-year-old daughter hula-hooped and blew bubbles with friends outside the Statehouse Thursday.

Maine's Senate had previously supported protecting religious exemptions, but that effort has failed.

Opponents of the bill warn a legal fight is brewing over whether it goes too far in infringing on religious liberty.

Other states worried over the measles outbreak have stopped short of removing religious exemptions this year. Washington state ended philosophical exemptions while retaining religious opt-outs . Connecticut decided not to vote this session on removing religious exemptions , despite a non-binding opinion from the state's attorney general that such a move wouldn't run afoul of the U.S. or state's constitution.

Maine's attorney general declined to comment when The Associated Press asked if the removal of religious exemptions conflicts with its own constitution. The document says "no person shall be hurt, molested or retrained" for following God according to his or her "own conscience."


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