22 Nov 2010

Proposed New York bill would make it easier for students to obtain religious exemption from vaccines

Weekly Albany, NY Legislative Gazette Newspaper - February 8, 2010

Bills would provide immunization exemptions

By Faith Burkins-Gimzek

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, announced Jan. 28 the committee's passage of 11 bills addressing patient rights and safety.

Two of the bills, which have advanced to their third reading, focus on strengthening a student's ability to opt out of mandatory immunizations upon school enrollment for diseases such as mumps, measles, Hib disease and hepatitis B. Both immunization exemption bills were sponsored by Gottfried and Sen. Frank Padavan, R-Queens, and if passed into law, would be effective immediately.

One bill (A.880/S.2339) would amend the Public Health Law, which states that if a licensed physician authorizes a medical exemption from vaccination for a child entering a public or private school, the exemption would be applicable until the vaccination "is found to no longer be detrimental to the child's health."

The amendment would expand the law's language to include not only licensed physician but also physician's assistants and nurse practitioners. The reason for exempting students would also be expanded to include "or otherwise contradicted for health reasons" instead of just "detrimental." It would also reaffirm the health care practitioner's authority to decide when, if ever, the vaccination would be appropriate for the exempted student.

Gottfried said a doctor might want to provide a medical exemption for a patient with a weakened immune system or an allergy to an ingredient in the immunization agent.

"I think even if the child's pediatrician is one who believes that vaccination is medically wrong, while I would strongly disagree with that position, I do not think the government should be standing between the physician and the patient," said Gottfried.

The corresponding bill (A.883/S.2338) would amend the same section of the Public Health Law, which states that children whose parents express a genuine and sincere religious belief against immunization be exempt. The amendment would permit school officials to accept a religious exemption from vaccination upon the parents' submittal of an affidavit stating their objection. This, according to the bill's memo, would protect parents from intrusive inquiry and from defending their religious beliefs, a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Both bills would apply to adult students as well as minors.

"To me, the idea of the government telling a parent they are wrong about their religion, that makes my blood boil. And yet there are numerous school districts across the state that have done exactly that," said Gottfried.

He said that the necessity of this legislation was brought to his attention through meetings with distraught parents who have been engaged in expensive legal battles against their school district and were forced to choose between upholding their religious beliefs and their child's attendance of school. He said no American citizen should have his or her religious beliefs persecuted and judged in such a way.

Gottfried said chances are slim that a parent would claim a false religious objection to avoid mandatory student vaccinations.

"First of all, most people are not willing to lie under oath about their religious beliefs, and secondly even if a small number of people abuse the law, I think it is more important to protect First Amendment rights," he said.

Philosophical, ethical or other non-religious objections would not be protected under this bill. "If an individual simply disagrees with government policy, I think in this country if a law says something you think is wrong, you still have to obey the law. But we do give special status to free exercise of religion," Gottfried said.

Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie, said he "vigorously opposes" both bills. He said he believes that if the medical and religious exemptions from immunization are strengthened, the percentage of unvaccinated children in the state would increase exponentially, which could threaten public health and community safety.

"If your child gets a disease because some other parent was totally negligent and irresponsible, you're not going to be a happy camper," he said.

Miller went on to say that parents would, and already have, abused the medical exemption, due largely in part to what he says is a common misconception that Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in multi-dose vials of certain vaccinations, is linked to autism.

"If your fear is your child is going to be autistic, it's not a valid fear," he said.

He also said parents might abuse the religious exemption, "Most people don't understand their own religion or are making it up as they go along to avoid the vaccination," Miller said.

He continued by saying that mandatory student immunizations are designed to prevent disease in future, as well as current, generations, and vaccination programs are only successful when they are widespread.

"When you have people opting out of the program, we don't isolate them or send them off to an island somewhere… [the children] are contagious and dangerous and shouldn't be in a classroom," he said.

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