Lawmakers mull decision to strike religious exemptions from vaccination law

BOSTON — When it comes to vaccinations, lawmakers on Beacon Hill are considering removing religious exemptions from the existing legislation.

House Bill 3999 is not complicated - all it does is strike the paragraph in the state's existing vaccination law allowing for religious exemptions.

Following suit with similar legislation in New York, Maine, Mississippi, California and West Virginia, Massachusetts would be the sixth state to end the religious exemption for vaccinations. Children in 44 states can get an exemption for religious beliefs.

Minnesota, specifically, allows for a broader exemption based on personal beliefs but doesn't explicitly mention religion.

Last year, more than 900 Massachusetts kindergartners were excused from vaccination, up to eight percent more than in 2017. The vast majority were from religious exemptions.

In light of the highly contagious measles virus resurfacing in the state, lawmakers and medical professionals are pushing to end the religious exemption.

This year there have been three confirmed cases of measles in Massachusetts.

Dr. Daniel Koretz supports the bill because of his granddaughter, who he says has a compromised immune system and cannot be near unvaccinated children.

"She cannot be in a crowd with unimmunized children," said Koretz. "I am angry beyond words at the people who would dare to put my grandchild at this risk."

Koretz's granddaughter isn't the only one at risk for exposure to unvaccinated persons. Older people, those with compromised immune systems or cancer patients are at a higher risk for contracting infections from unvaccinated children and adults.

"Those who oppose vaccination are putting my children, our children at risk as well as our nation at risk," said Juliette Kayyem, a parent.

Richard Moriarty, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UMass Memorial, says the proposed change is long overdue.

"Measles is the most contagious infectious disease that there is," said Moriarty. "We have some areas around the state that are outbreaks waiting to happen."

Critics of the bill were also there for Tuesday's hearing, many saying they have children who have been injured by vaccines.

"From my faith, I chose not to vaccinate my now very healthy boys ages nine and seven," said Erin McDermott, a nurse. "I chose a different choice and I should never feel ashamed of this."

Carol Langley says she used a religious exemption after two of her children suffered health complications which she believes to be related to vaccines.

"Three of these vaccine injuries on these two children were life-altering," said Langley. "They changed their lives and they changed them forever we couldn't take them back."

A separate bill is being considered by lawmakers, one known as the "Community Immunity Act".

The proposed legislation would keep religious exemptions available to parents, but any exemption would have to be approved by the Department of Health.

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