To attend school in Vermont, children must be vaccinated against roughly a dozen diseases: polio, measles, tetanus and more.
But, under state law, parents and guardians can opt out of those vaccines if they inform the school annually that they “(hold) religious beliefs opposed to immunization.”
Now, a bill in the Vermont Legislature would eliminate that option.
The bill, introduced Tuesday by Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, would end the religious exemption for vaccine mandates. If the bill becomes law, only students with medical reasons could be exempted from required vaccines.
“Among other things, Covid has shown us that vaccinations save lives,” Campion said in an interview. “And we have to do what we can do to protect children, teachers, school personnel and all their families.”
As written, the bill has no relation to the Covid-19 vaccine. Vermont schools do not currently require Covid shots for students, though Campion said he hoped the bill would “lead to a conversation” about a potential requirement.
But the proposed legislation comes at a time when the issue of vaccine mandates has caused deep political rifts.
Years ago, Vermont’s vaccine mandate law allowed exemptions for health, religious and “philosophical” reasons.
In 2015, after contentious debate, lawmakers eliminated the philosophical exemption. But data published in 2019 by the Vermont Department of Health showed that, as people stopped seeking philosophical exemptions, religious exemptions jumped.
“The data kind of implies that many of those who can no longer utilize the philosophical exemption have chosen to utilize the religious exemption,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in 2019.
Campion’s bill is not the first to challenge the exemption. House Democrats have made several attempts to remove the language, including a bill introduced a year ago, in the first half of the legislative biennium.
So far, the bills have done little but languish in legislative committees.
The exemption “might be one of those things that people forget about when things seem like they're going OK,” Campion said when asked why his bill should fare differently. “But we know that things aren't going OK.”
“We cannot turn our back on science,” he said.
But the new bill faces an uncertain future in the Statehouse, where lawmakers appeared to have little appetite to tackle the controversial topic.
“Given the moment we’re in right now with the pandemic, it’s critical that we do think carefully about our laws regarding vaccination,” Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, said in an emailed statement. “I am eager to hear the testimony, but this bill is not currently a priority for the caucus in the Senate.”
Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, declined to take a position on the bill but seemed to agree with his Democratic counterpart.
“I don't know (that) this has to happen in this particular session,” Brock said. “Unless we're told, for example, by medical experts that it's really going to make a significant difference in the preservation of life. And I haven't heard that.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott said he had not yet seen the bill.
“While serving as lieutenant governor, (Scott) supported eliminating the philosophical exemption, which has since been removed,” spokesperson Jason Maulucci said in an email. “He has supported religious exemptions in the past, but has expressed concern for the potential of the anti-vaxx community misusing it, and believes when any religious exemption is invoked, it must be sincere.”
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