Senate OKs vaccination bill
MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Friday passed and sent to the House a bill that would end the philosophical exemption from the requirement that parents get their children a series of vaccinations before they enter school.
But a religious exemption would remain in place, and senators and state Health Department officials agreed that there are no standards in Vermont law for what constitutes religious belief.
Nor should there be, said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a national group that has litigated religious freedom cases -- including battles over childhood immunizations -- around the country.
"It can be a slippery slope to try to determine whether a person's religious belief is valid or not," Staver said. "It puts the courts or the government in the role of deciding what is considered orthodox or not orthodox, approved or not approved, as it relates to religious belief."
Christine Finley, immunization program manager for the state Department of Health, said to get a religious exemption parents just need to sign a form requesting one.
"Nothing would stop you if you wanted to exempt your children on religious grounds," she said.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland and the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said any move to eliminate the religious exemption along with the philosophical one most likely would be challenged in court and rejected.
He acknowledged that the religious exemption left parents with a big out, but said many who have taken the philosophical exemption will not ask for the religious one. "In other states, immunization rates have gone up when they did away with the philosophical exemption," he said.
Twenty states allow a philosophical exemption, while 48 -- all but Mississippi and West Virginia -- offer a religious one, Finley said.
Final action came Friday without debate, following lengthy discussion on Thursday when the matter was up for preliminary approval.
Using recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Health Department has a list of required and recommended vaccinations for children of various ages to enter public schools or licensed child care centers.
To enter kindergarten, a child is required to have had three doses of hepatitis B vaccine, four of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine, three of polio vaccine, three of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and one of varicella (chicken pox).
A vocal group of parents packed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee's room as it took testimony on the bill, some objecting strongly to eliminating the philosophical exemption, telling stories of adverse reactions, including deaths, of a small number of children who had received the shots.
But Dr. Harry Chen, the state Health Commissioner and other health professionals testified repeatedly that the scientific evidence was overwhelming that the benefits of the vaccines outweighed the risks.
"Many of us may not be in this chamber today if our parents and grandparents, great-grandparents had taken such a lenient approach to vaccinations and refused to be vaccinated for diseases like smallpox, polio, tuberculosis," Mullin said as he described the bill to his colleagues on Thursday. "We're going to protect our kids in our public schools and early childhood facilities so they are not exposed to dangerous disease and illness."
One of those voting against the measure, Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said he objected to treating philosophical misgivings about the vaccines differently from religious ones.
Baruth said he was "troubled, though, that we would remove philosophical conviction as something that would be allowed to those who don't profess an organized religion. It seems to me we're moving down a path where we're creating ... a set of rights for people of professed, organized religion, and taking them away from people who have deeply held convictions but who do not in fact worship this or that higher being."
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