New York has been at the epicenter of the latest outbreak of measles. Cases have been concentrated in two parts of the state that have high concentrations of Hasidic Jews. While most of these children do receive their vaccinations, there is a vocal minority that objects to vaccinating their children on religious grounds. The law had previously sanctioned that behavior by allowing for a religious exemption to requirements to vaccinate children. Recently, the New York State Assembly passed a law to repeal the law that allows for religious exemptions in order to help stop the long-term spread of the disease.
In general, most states have several different types of permissible exemptions from the mandate to vaccinate children. Every state allows parents to not vaccinate their children if there is a valid medical reason such as a severe allergic reaction or some other immune deficiency. Many other states have exemptions that permit parents to refuse to vaccinate their children if they have ethical or religious objections to the vaccination. In fact, nearly all states allow parents to forgo vaccinations as an exercise of their religious freedom. For example, in New York, parents could avail themselves of the religious exemption by filling out a form expressing their opposition to the vaccine. However, in the wake of the largest measles outbreak in decades, many states are beginning to take another look at these exemptions.
New York is the latest state to make a change to these laws. There have been roughly 800 cases of measles in the state since September 2018. New York has a large population of ultra-Orthodox Jews. While Jewish law does not prohibit vaccines, there is a vocal minority in the community who believe that they are forbidden. As such, they have not vaccinated their children. These pockets are found in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn and suburban Rockland County. The community is currently undergoing an intense internal debate as to the merits and dangers of vaccinations. While there is a perception that hundreds of thousands of children have not been vaccinated, the actual number of children relying on the religious exemption is roughly 24,000. In general, the vaccination rate in New York is roughly 92 percent.
Some in the state have argued that vaccinations are a matter of religious freedom and that interest comes before any state interest in requiring vaccinations. The State Capitol was the scene of protests as the bill was passed as both religious groups and those who believe that vaccines are dangerous congregated to express their opposition. Critics of the bill argued that mandated that parents vaccinate their children is a step too far for a government that they believe has gotten too large. These detractors now promise that they will file suit in court to challenge the legislation as unconstitutional.
Proponents of the bill have argued that measles is a public health crisis that must be forcefully addressed by all means. In the case of an emergency, the bill’s advocates say that the public health interest trumps religious freedom. The difference of opinion was apparent when the bill was being debated in the legislature. The bill barely made it out of committee in the New York State Assembly and only did so because one Assemblyman switched their vote from no to yes at the last minute.
The bill was passed by both houses of the state’s legislature and signed into law by the governor immediately after the final vote was taken. New York joined California as states that have repealed this exemption. In the wake of the law’s passage, students now have 30 days to show schools proof that they have been vaccinated. There is a one-year grace period for children who can show that they have received the first in a series of vaccinations.
The difficulty in enforcing this law is that students who are not vaccinated for religious reasons are part of their own private school system. The state must make affirmative efforts to make their way into this school system to enforce the laws and has wavered in the past when it comes to enforcing its laws in this school system.
Several other states have efforts underway to repeal this exemption. There is legislation pending in other jurisdictions that would leave medical exemptions as the only recognized means for parents to avoid vaccinating their children. Given the intense publicity surrounding this debate, these debates are likely to be contentious as the prospects for approval of these bills increase. The heightened scrutiny that this issue is receiving means that these bills stand a greater chance of approval than they would have had prior to this recent outbreak. Neighboring Connecticut also made an effort to repeal the religious exemption, but the effort stalled and will be taken up in sessions against next year.
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