No More Personal, Religious Exemptions to State Vaccine Law?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 21, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California may soon be getting rid of the religious and personal exemptions that let parents opt out of vaccinating their children before enrolling them in school, daycares or nurseries. A new bill imposing more robust child vaccination requirements has been approved by the state Senate and is well on its way to becoming law.

The law comes largely as a response to an outbreak of measles in Disneyland this winter, which spread to over 100 individuals across state and even national lines. Measles, like many diseases, is preventable through immunization, but California has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with more than a quarter of schools having immunization rates below levels recommended by the C.D.C.

A Controversial Bill

Vaccinations have been known since at least the 10th Century, becoming common in the early 1800s. By the 1960s, about half of the states required children to be vaccinated before entering school; today every state does. Widespread vaccination has been credited with eliminating once common diseases like polio and small pox and greatly reducing incidences of measles, mumps, hepatitis and other diseases. Yet, they have become controversial among some, who believe that they could be linked to increased rates of autism and other diseases, though there is no scientific evidence supporting this.

As "anti-vaxx" opinions have spread, vaccine refusal rates have soared and vaccination policies have come under fire. The last attempt to strengthen California's vaccination law, for example, was undermined by Governor Jerry Brown, who included broad exemptions over legislators' objections.

What about Christian Scientists?

The new bill marks a sharp turn away from the permissiveness Brown added to the last version. Senate Bill 277 would make California only the third state to not allow exemptions for religious reasons. That could open the state up to claims that it violates individuals' free practice of religion, though few major doctrines oppose vaccination.

The legality of mandatory vaccination policies has generally been upheld over the years. The United States Supreme Court first upheld compulsory vaccination laws in 1905, and school vaccination requirements in 1922. Slightly more recently, the Court reaffirmed that schools can deny enrollment to unvaccinated children for public health reasons. The Court hasn't examined religious objections to vaccination, however, though one federal court has read past precedent to indicate that religious objectors aren't exempt from vaccination requirements.

In the meantime, stay away from kids with little red dots.

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