In Reversal, Maine Senate Drops Religious Exemptions From Vaccination Bill

May 15, 2019

A bill establishing one of the more aggressive vaccination laws in the country is now one step closer to reaching Democratic Gov. Janet Mills after a vote in the Maine Senate on Tuesday.

The proposal eliminates all nonmedical exemptions to the state’s vaccination requirements for Maine school children. It comes amid a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases that has sparked a divisive debate over individual rights and public health.

The vote in the Senate Tuesday effectively reverses earlier action by the Democratic-controlled Senate to retain exemptions for religious reasons. In the previous vote, four Democrats sided with the Republican minority to retain the religious opt-out, which is currently allowed in 47 other states.

Like Maine, several states are moving to strike the religious exemption amid outbreaks of measles, mumps and pertussis. That’s triggered pushback from religious groups and lawmakers, like Republican Sen. Matt Pouliot, of Augusta, who argued Tuesday that eliminating the exemption coerces parents into immunizing their children or risk having them removed from Maine schools.

“This bill bullies the small minority by overriding their lack of consent to a medical procedure and does so by mobilizing stereotypes that the unvaccinated are dirty, dangerous and contagious when they are no such thing,” Pouliot said during the floor debate.

Under current law, parents can opt out of the vaccination requirement by filling out a form citing philosophical or religious reasons. The bill would eliminate those exemptions beginning in 2021, while also broadening the criteria that allows physicians to grant medical opt-outs.

Sen. James Dill, of Old Town, was one of the four Democrats who previously voted with the Republican minority to retain religious exemptions — a vote that put the Senate bill at odds with a version approved by the House version and threatening to stall what doctors and health groups say is a needed overhaul to Maine’ vaccine law.

Dill reversed his position on Tuesday, putting the proposal back on track. He said he hoped Mills will approve a study that further evaluates the need for medical exemptions.

“I believe the medical exemptions need to be broadened, not necessarily to actually exempt, but to space scheduling of immunizations based on reactions and not necessarily on a doctor,” he said.

The governor has not said if she’ll sign the proposal, but the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that she oversees testified in support of it.

DHHS noted during the public hearing that Maine ranks seventh in the country in nonmedical exemption rates among school age children. Declining immunization rates threatened to dip below the herd immunity threshold that makes the spread of disease unlikely even among those who are unvaccinated.

State data show that 5 percent of Maine children entering kindergarten — or roughly 600 statewide — claimed nonmedical exemptions in the previous school year.

While Maine could become just the fourth state to eliminate religious exemptions, New Jersey, New York, Iowa and Vermont — which banned philosophical exemptions four years ago only to see a spike in religious opt-outs — are all considering similar restrictions.

Originally published 1:48p.m. May 14, 2019