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New York Bans Religious Exemptions For Vaccines

Karen Dewitt

New York State lawmakers have ended a religious exemption for vaccinations. The Assembly narrowly approved a bill by 77 to 53  in light of a measles outbreak. It’s already been passed by the Senate and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The state Assembly narrowly approved a measure to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations, in the wake of a severe measles outbreak that began in communities with a high percentage of unvaccinated children in New York and is steadily spreading to other states. The measure almost didn’t make it out of the health committee, and the Chair of the Committee voted against the bill on the Assembly floor.

The weeks-long logjam over the bill in the Assembly broke when the Health Committee approved the bill by a 13 to 12 vote, after the majority of the over 100 Democratic Assemblymembers , in a private party conference meeting, agreed that the measure deserved an airing on the floor.  

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried  voted yes. He said some of the members who were also voting to advance the bill did not necessarily back the measure

“I believe that it is my responsibility as chair to help carry out the will of the (assembly) majority  conference,” Gottfried said.

Gottfried himself voted against the bill on the Assembly floor, saying he does not believe the measles outbreak warrants approving a bill that he says interferes with the first amendment, and freedom of religion. And he believes public health efforts should be strengthened instead.  

Other prominent Assembly Democrats also voted against the measure, including Codes Committee chair Joseph Lentol, also citing religious liberty.

And many Republicans  voted no, saying only a very small percentage of those who are unvaccinated have claimed a religion exemption. Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, a Republican from Jamestown says the real problem is that most who are unvaccinated have simply not complied with existing requirements.

“In the vast majority of or state, those religious exemptions do not affect the herd immunity levels, and only interfere with a person’s genuinely held religious belief,” said Goodell, who said he is not opposed to vaccinations.

In debate, sponsor Jeffrey Dinowitz, says all the major medical organizations and scientific evidence  says vaccines are necessary and save the lives of children. He says those who use the religious exemption to avoid vaccines jeopardize the lives of children with compromised immune systems, who can’t be vaccinated.

“The health of other people,  I hate to use this word, trumps people’s right to say that they don’t want to get vaccinated or have their children vaccinated,” Dinowitz said.

Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, a Democrat from Rockland County, one of the epicenters of the disease, urged his colleagues to overcome any doubts they may have, and vote yes.

“I know it’s a difficult vote, and I know that there are a lot of people in this building who are very passionate, and I honestly respect their passion,” Zebrowski said. “But we have to protect public health, colleagues.”

The measure squeaked by at 77 to 53 , just one vote more than needed to approve a measure in the 150 member assembly.

The chamber erupted as groups opposed to vaccinations, including some evangelical   Christians, and orthodox Jewish members shouted and screamed insults , and in some cases, vulgarities, from the gallery.

Outside the chamber, Kathryn Kaye of Seaport, Long Island, tearfully witnessed the proceedings.

“The people of New York don’t realize that it’s not just the students that they are coming after,” Kaye said. “Everybody is losing their right to say not to what’s injected into their body.”   

Bill sponsor Dinowitz says no one will be required to be vaccinated, and he says New Yorkers can still get a medical exemption.

“Nobody can be physically forced to vaccinate their children, it does not do that,” said Dinowitz who said it’s important to protect “vulnerable children” who can’t be vaccinated .

“It’s just shocking to me that so many people are willing to overlook those kids,” he said.

But unvaccinated children without a medical exemption would be barred from schools and  day care centers.

The bill was also expected to be approved in the state Senate.

It now goes to Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has said he’ll sign it, saying while he respects the freedom of religion, he believes those concerns are “overwhelmed by the public health risk”.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.