Mainers Vote Against Religious, Philosophical Exemptions For School-Mandated Vaccinations

Mar 4, 2020

Maine voters have upheld a new state law that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccinations required to attend school. The campaign to keep the law prevailed by a large margin in Tuesday's referendum vote.

The campaign to preserve Maine's new vaccination law held a commanding lead as soon as results started to come in.  A little after 9:00 p.m., Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician and one of the leaders of the No on 1 campaign, claimed victory. "We have just received word that Mainers have voted to keep our vaccine law!"

Blaisdell spoke at Salvage BBQ in Portland, addressing a crowd filled with parents, doctors, and representatives of health organizations. She said Maine's law is a boost for public health. "Today, we have led Maine's communities and children to a safer tomorrow."

Maine's vaccination law was passed last year.  It eliminates non-medical exemptions for vaccinations that are required for students to attend school. Its goal was to counter Maine's growing exemption rate for kindergartners, which is more than 5% - one of the highest in the nation.  

Public health officials say that's pushed immunization rates below the 95% threshold needed for herd immunity to prevent the spread of disease. Parents of immuno-compromised children say those rates put their kids at particular risk.  

And some physicians point to recent outbreaks of measles in other states, as well as Maine's rate of pertussis -  the second highest in the nation - as evidence of the need to boost rates of immunizations.

But the law triggered a swift backlash from opponents, who collected more than 79,000 signatures to put the issue to voters through a people's veto referendum.  The Yes on 1 campaign was defiant in the face of  defeat Tuesday night.

"This vote is not a true indication of where the people of Maine stand on this issue," said Cara Sacks, co-chair of the campaign to repeal the law.

Sacks praised supporters, many of whom were wiping tears at the results. Speaking at an election party in Augusta, she said the odds were stacked against their campaign, citing the referendum's placement on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary, the media coverage of the issue, and the influence of pharmaceutical companies. 

Sacks said families who want to use philosophical exemptions must now decide whether to stay in Maine.

"Our opponents will come to know that same feeling of loss one day when their neighbors move, their children lose beloved classmates, businesses close," she said, "or one day when they need the essential right to make their own medical decisions that they have so willingly handed over to an untrustworthy government."

Supporters of Maine’s vaccination law called for compassion. Dan Morin of the Maine Medical Association urged those upset about the outcome to trust - and talk to - their medical providers.

"You know, the law that passed actually opened up medical exemptions, so you can go to your physician, your nurse practitioner, your physician assistant," Morin said. "And there's a wider window you can go through now to get medical exemptions."

Maine is now the fifth state to prohibit non-medical vaccine exemptions.  The law is due to go into effect in September of 2021.

Originally published 9:43 p.m. March 3, 2020. Updated March 4, 2020 at 7:40 a.m. ET.