Maine Senate Narrowly Votes To Retain Religious Exemptions For Vaccinations

May 2, 2019

A bill that would eliminate most non-medical exemptions to the state’s vaccination requirements for Maine school children hit a snag Thursday.

The Maine Senate narrowly voted to retain exemptions for religious reasons. The House has rejected restoring religious exemptions, so the measure will have to undergo additional votes before it goes to the desk of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

The bill would require that starting in 2021, children in Maine would have to be immunized in order to attend school or daycare, unless a physician determines that a vaccine poses a specific health risk. The public debate over the issue has been fierce from the get-go.

Parents and activists flooded the public hearing on the measure and many returned to the State House Thursday to watch as Republicans and Democrats debated a central question: At what point does public health supersede a person's individual rights and beliefs?

In some cases the arguments have been deeply personal.

Republican Sen. Robert Foley, of Wells, explained from the Senate floor that his two-month-old daughter died more than 30 years ago shortly after receiving her schedule of vaccinations.

"There's not a person in this chamber, or in these halls, who will ever convince us that those shots did not play a significant and vital role in our daughter's untimely and unwarranted death," Foley said.

Anti-vaccination sentiments have contributed to recent outbreaks of childhood diseases around the country. A measles outbreak prompted quarantines at two Los Angeles universities just last week. In April, city officials in Brooklyn, New York ordered mandatory vaccinations to counter an outbreak of measles.

And in March, the Maine Center Disease Control reported that immunization rates in Maine had dipped below the herd immunity level of 95 percent. Herd immunity is the threshold above which the spread of disease within a population is unlikely even among those who are unvaccinated.

Democratic state Sen. Shenna Bellows, of Manchester, said she's been contacted by dozens of parents who say their children had been seriously harmed by vaccines.

"For some children and some populations, vaccines can cause injury or death. And the lack of recourse, or redress, for those children and their families is breathtaking," Bellows said.

But while Bellows was sympathetic to what she described as credible stories of vaccine injuries, she said was ultimately persuaded by the parents of immunocompromised children whose health depends on herd immunity, and who could be forced to pull their children out of school.

"For them I will vote in favor of this compromise. While imperfect, a step forward," Bellows said.

The compromise Bellows referred to is a provision that broadens the ways that a parent could request a medical exemption and also for families to choose alternate vaccination schedules.

The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 20-15 to pass the bill with all but one Democrat, Sen. David Miramant, of Camden, supporting it. An amendment sponsored by Miramant that restored religious exemptions was approved by one vote.

The amendment was backed by three Democrats and all 15 Republicans, including Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Timberlake, of Turner.

Timberlake said the removal of even just one exemption based on philosophical reasons was already government overreach, let alone the move to strike the religious exemption, too.

"This is people's rights. We're telling people what they gotta inject in their bodies. I can't even believe we're having this conversation to begin with," Timberlake said.

A similar bid to retain the religious exemption in the House narrowly failed in March. Now, with the two chambers at odds, Democrats in the House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences or the bill could stall altogether.

If Senate bill passes, Maine will join the 30 states that do not allow exemptions for philosophical reasons. If the House version passes, Maine will become just the fourth state to prohibit religious exemptions.