ALBANY, N.Y. – New York eliminated a religious exemption to vaccine requirements for schoolchildren Thursday, following a trend of states trying to clamp down on opt-outs in the face of its worst measles outbreak in decades .
The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly voted Thursday to repeal the exemption, which allows parents of children to cite their religious beliefs to opt a child out of the vaccines required for school enrollment.
Soon after, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the measure.
Similar exemptions are allowed in 46 states, though lawmakers in several of them are also considering the elimination of the waiver.
“We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan and the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. “The atrocious peddlers of junk science and fraudulent medicine who we know as anti-vaxxers have spent years sowing unwarranted doubt and fear, but it is time for legislators to confront them head on.”
Hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children gathered at New York’s Capitol before the vote to protest what several called an assault on religious freedom.
“People came to this country to get away from exactly this kind of stuff,” said Stan Yung, a Long Island attorney who has three children.
Yung, who is Russian Orthodox, said he has religious views and health concerns that will prevent him from vaccinating his three young children. His family, he said, may consider leaving the state if the bill is signed into law.
Supporters of the bill say religious beliefs about vaccines shouldn’t eclipse scientific evidence that they work, noting the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the right to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. During the Assembly’s floor debate, supporters brought up scourges of the past that were defeated in the U.S. through vaccines.
“I’m old enough to have been around when polio was a real threat,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan. “I believe in science…. Your personal opinions, which may be based on junk science, do not trump the greater good.”
Supporters also suggest some parents may be claiming the religious exemption for their children even though their opposition is actually based on misguided claims about scientifically discredited dangers of vaccines.
The bill would not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.
Once signed, the law will take effect immediately but will give unvaccinated students up to 30 days after they enter a school to show they’ve had the first dose of each required immunization.
Cuomo supports eliminating the exemption, saying public health is at risk.
“I understand freedom of religion,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I have heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk.”
Federal health officials said last week that this year’s U.S. measles epidemic has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years. The majority of cases are from outbreaks in New York in Orthodox Jewish communities.
The nation last saw this many cases in 1992, when more than 2,200 were reported.
Legislation is pending in several state capitols to eliminate their version of the religious exemption.
California removed personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in both public and private schools in 2015, after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada. Maine ended its religious exemption earlier this year.
Mississippi and West Virginia also do not allow religious exemptions.
Once common in the U.S., measles became rare after vaccination campaigns that started in the 1960s. A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 cases a year.