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Bill looks to ease path to religious exemption from vaccines

Bill looks to ease path to religious exemption from vaccines

Prospects for measure appear dim
Bill looks to ease path to religious exemption from vaccines
State Sen. James L. Seward, R-Oneonta, supports a proposal to make claiming a religious exemption from vaccines easier.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

CAPITOL -- A bill that would ease the process for parents seeking religious exemptions to requirements that children must be vaccinated before entering school passed the state Senate Education Committee Thursday, despite opposition from an array of medical and education organizations.

The legislation would prohibit school administrators from asking parents who claim a religious objection to vaccinations to back up the claim with further evidence of their religious objections.

It’s not clear though what, if any, chance the proposal has of passing in either the full Senate or Assembly in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Under the proposal, a claim of “sincere religious beliefs which are contrary” to vaccinations would be enough to obtain the exemption. The bill outlines a simple form parents would sign and submit to school officials to finalize the exemption; under current law, districts can ask for further certification that a religious belief would justify the vaccine exemption.

Reports that districts forced parents to prove their religious beliefs in an overly burdensome way or rejected the exemption requests outright spurred the bill forward.

But the medical organizations warned loosening the exemption rules could threaten public health. The Medical Society of New York, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the New York Academy of Family Physicians, the Council of School Superintendents, the State School Boards Association and other groups have all lined up against the legislation.

“Immunization is one of the most important things we can do for our patients and society as a whole in terms of prevention of diseases,” said Dr. Thomas Madejski, president of the New York Medical Society. “There’s certainly a personal freedom aspect to this, but the way it’s structured, we think the risk to public health outweighs [other concerns].”

Madejkski said the physicians organization was open to considering ways to refine the process for parents seeking religious exemptions to the vaccination, acknowledging some genuine religious objections to vaccination exist, but said the bill in its current form did more harm than good.

Sen. James Seward, R-Oneonta, voted in favor of the bill when it came up in the Education Committee. While he said he encourages parents to vaccinate their children, Seward cited examples of families he said have been treated unfairly by administrators who pressed for more proof of an objection or denied them outright. He said parents he had heard from mostly came from school districts in the western part of his Senate district, which stretches nearly to Ithaca.

“I think this should be a form that’s filed by a parent and accepted by a school district,” he said Friday. “I wanted to make a statement that I think we should respect the religious beliefs of others, as well as parental rights.”

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he has considered a similar bill as part of the Assembly Health Committee. He said he hasn’t heard from constituents facing problems under current law and that he wasn’t convinced parents faced undue burdens to receiving a religious exemption from vaccinations.

“It’s not unreasonable to require someone seeking a religious exemption to provide some evidence this is a genuinely-held religious belief,” Steck said Friday. “You don’t want to have a hyper-individualist approach where everyone gets to decide for themselves what they want to do when they want to do it.”

Backers of the bill may find it difficult to get the measure to the governor's desk.

The state Senate this week effectively came to a standstill with Democrats and Republican in the chamber deadlocked over moving forward on any legislation. Seward acknowledged the Senate’s future productivity was an open question.

“It remains to be seen how much legislation is really going to be enacted in the next two-and-a-half weeks, that’s an open question,” Seward said.

Steck appeared to agree with Seward’s assessment of the political landscape.

“I don’t know what the Senate is going to do, I really don’t,” he said.

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