Jul 19, 2023 - Education

Massachusetts lawmakers consider cutting religious vaccine exemption for students

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Beacon Hill is wading into the tumultuous territory of school vaccine requirements as lawmakers vet proposals to tighten school precautions against future outbreaks.

Driving the news: The Public Health Committee meets Wednesday to consider a handful of vaccine bills, including legislation to completely eliminate the state's religious exemption option and to standardize the student vaccine exemption system.

Why it matters: Vaccine mandates for children have always been a political minefield. Even Democrats in favor of the bills know they will be bombarded by comments from vaccine opponents if they come up for votes.

Zoom in: Rep. Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill), the sponsor of a bill to eliminate the religious exemption, told Axios the state has a responsibility to protect immunocompromised children from unvaccinated students.

  • Vargas said anti-vaccine parents are using the religious exemption as a loophole to carry out their skepticism of science, not from any sincere religious belief.

The big picture: Massachusetts would become the seventh state to only allow medical exemptions for K-12 student vaccine requirements, joining California, West Virginia, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Maine and New York.

A separate bill with broader support wouldn't do away with the religious exemption but would standardize how exemptions are processed and tracked.

  • Sen. Becca Rausch (D-Needham)'s bill would require more data collection and create standardized forms through the Department of Public Health.

State of play: K-12 students in Massachusetts are required to be immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and chickenpox.

  • Currently, districts are in charge of processing vaccine exemptions and voluntarily report immunization data to the state.

The other side: Several groups plan to testify in person and virtually against the bills.

  • The right-wing Massachusetts Family Institute warned this week that standardizing the exemption process and making immunization data public would create bureaucracy and shame schools and parents.

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