AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Tuesday approved a bill that removes religious and philosophical exemptions for school vaccination requirements. The 78-59 vote was mostly along party lines.

The measure, which was largely opposed by Republicans, would require all children attending Maine schools to have received a mandatory series of vaccinations aimed at protecting against several preventable diseases. The bill also removes the same exemptions for health care workers and daycare providers.

Following the initial vote on the measure, lawmakers also voted down an attempt to amend the bill to preserve the exemption for religious beliefs.

The bill goes to the Senate for a vote and will face additional votes in both bodies before being sent to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills for consideration.

Supporters of the bill said it is overdue and is needed to protect children who have medical conditions and can’t be vaccinated against diseases that could be deadly for them or cause them other life-long health problems.

“We are fortunate not to be living in the 18th century, with a general population that were faced with the horror of epidemic,” Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk said. “Those children that we cherish in our public schools are our responsibility. Their safety is our responsibility.”

About 20 members of the House spoke on the bill in a floor debate lasting about 80 minutes.

Opponents said the bill strips parents of their rights to decide what is best for their children, violates their constitutional rights to practice their religion and is too far-reaching, covering all public education institutions from nursery schools to Maine’s public university system, as well as private schools.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, speaks Tuesday against the bill to remove religious and philosophical exemptions from public school vaccination requirements. The measure was approved on a mostly party-line vote of 78-59. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“I am not anti-vaccine,” said Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta. “I see this through a constitutional lens and protecting it is my chief responsibility as a legislator and a combat veteran. This is government overriding bodily autonomy and forces the creation of a new minority in our state. My primary interest is to protect liberty and this minority does not consent to this invasive procedure. My body, my choice.”

Others argued the policy would force children from schools, exacerbating a distrust in government and denying a public education to those who may need it most.

“This will not solve the problems of vaccinations,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, one of the few Democrats opposing the bill. “This will increase the issue.”

Hickman said the bill would make people more fearful of government and cause them to go even further underground in denying their children the benefits of public education and health care.

Maine has one of the worst vaccination rates for children entering kindergarten in the nation, and the country’s highest rate of pertussis, a vaccine-preventable disease also known as whooping cough.

If approved, Maine would be the fourth state – following California, Mississippi and West Virginia – to ban all non-medical exemptions that allow parents to forgo school-required vaccines for their children.

In Maine, current state law permits parents to skip vaccines for their children by signing a form opting out on philosophic and religious grounds. In the 2018-19 school year, 5.6 percent of Maine children entering kindergarten had non-medical exemptions for immunizations, state statistics show.

For some infectious diseases, herd immunity can be weakened if fewer than 95 percent of the students are vaccinated. Herd immunity refers to protection from infectious disease that occurs when much of a population is immune because they received vaccinations.

Forty-three elementary schools were reporting 15 percent or higher rates of unvaccinated kindergarten students, putting those schools and the surrounding community at greater risk for the return of preventable diseases such as measles, chickenpox and pertussis.

Dozens of medical and public health organizations including the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians and an association of school nurses spoke in favor of the bill during hours of testimony on it in March.

 

 

 

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