New York Lawmakers Pass Measure Ending Religious Exemptions For Vaccines

New York moved closer on Thursday to eliminating a religious exemption to vaccine requirements in the face of the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades.
New York moved closer on Thursday to eliminating a religious exemption to vaccine requirements in the face of the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades.
Paul Vernon/AP

Updated at 6:48 p.m. ET

Lawmakers in New York passed a law on Thursday to end vaccination exemptions based on a family's religious belief, as the country is in the grips of its worst measles outbreak in decades.

The bill is now on its way to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who says he will sign it as soon as Thursday evening.

Both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature advanced the measure eliminating religious and other nonmedical exemptions for schoolchildren across the state.

"We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis," said Sen. Brad Hoylman, the legislation's sponsor. "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."

The exemption, which exists in some form in most states, allows parents of schoolchildren to cite their religious beliefs in opting their kids out of required vaccines. Supporters of keeping the religious exemptions say religious freedom should not be overpowered by state laws.

After the final vote tally was announced in the assembly, howling protesters, including the parents of unvaccinated children, filled the chamber, chanting "shame on you," until lawmakers moved to recess.

But Cuomo, who is set to sign the legislation into law, has said the change is necessary in what he described as a state health crisis.

"I understand freedom of religion. We all do. We respect it. I've heard the anti-vaxxers' theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk," Cuomo said.

Assembly member Patricia Fahy echoed Cuomo's stance before voting in support of the measure. "When we put the rest of the public at risk," she said, individual choices to not vaccinate children become "another matter."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the number of new measles cases this year has exceeded 1,000, the highest count in 27 years.

Most of those new measles cases have been concentrated in ultra-Orthodox areas of New York, including Rockland County and parts of Brooklyn, adding urgency to the statewide debate around religious exemptions to vaccines.

The New York Assembly narrowly passed the bill by a 77-53 vote. It needed 76 votes for passage. Shortly after, lawmakers in the state Senate advanced the measure by a tally of 36-26.

A small number of other states including California, Mississippi and Arizona have already passed laws banning vaccine exemptions on religious grounds.

New York state Sen. John Liu, who represents Queens, said while he thinks removing the religious exemption is the right move, he has heard from constituents who hold "deep and sincere" religious beliefs who would be "absolutely outraged that anyone would suggest that they don't care about the health of their children." Liu suggested that the tenor of the debate on both sides could be more civil.

"We can respectfully disagree," Liu said.

Once Cuomo signs the bill, as he has promised, it will take effect immediately. Unvaccinated students will have up to 30 days to show school officials they have received required vaccinations.

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