Disney measles outbreak: Should public health trump religious belief when it comes to vaccination?

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On Wednesday, state lawmakers announced plans to introduce a bill that would end parents’ ability to refuse vaccinating their kids by citing their personal beliefs. It's unclear whether they’ll make an exception for parents who say their religious beliefs prohibit vaccines, and that has set off a debate between public health advocates and some defenders of religious freedom. 

California is one of 48 states that allow parents to refuse vaccines on religious grounds. To do so, they check a box on the state’s Personal Belief Exemption form that says their religion prohibits them from seeking advice or treatment from a doctor.

But pro-vaccine activists who support eliminating the personal belief exemption say it’s also time to get rid of the religious exemption.

"Not only do we not believe there is any religion against vaccination, we definitely don’t believe there is any religion that is against simply talking to a doctor," says Catherine Martin, who directs the California Immunization Coalition, which supports vaccinations.

Martin says she thinks many of the roughly 2,700 people who have claimed religious exemptions in California may simply be using the option to get around new rules that make it harder to get a personal belief exemption. Since last year, parents seeking a personal belief exemption have been required to get a doctor’s signature to show they’ve discussed the risks of skipping vaccines. People who get a religious exemption don’t have the same requirement.

Though a handful of minor Christian denominations do shun medical treatment, including vaccines, none of the world’s major religions opposes immunization.

But some religious freedom advocates say that when it comes to the vaccine debate, it doesn’t matter whether a person adheres to an organized religion.

"To say that there aren’t any religions that object to vaccines really minimizes the power of individual beliefs," says Matthew McReynolds, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, which advocates for religious freedom. "The courts have said for decades that we don’t look at what denominations believe, we look at what individuals believe."

John Coy is the type of person McReynolds is talking about. He lives in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and home-schools his 10-year-old daughter, who’s not fully vaccinated.

Coy tells KPCC that if he ever decides to send his daughter to public school, he will file for a religious exemption even though he doesn’t belong to any recognized religion. He says he considers his spirituality his religion, and it is a big part of why he hasn’t vaccinated his daughter.

"It’s an informed, aware, more advanced position. It comes from a higher, inspired place," he says.

According to McReynolds, states have generally struck a balance between the need to protect public health and people’s religious concerns about vaccines. But he says that balance is at risk now that the ongoing measles outbreak has led to what he calls a "rush to judgement" against parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.

McReynolds predicts that religious freedom advocates won’t simply stand by if California gets rid of the religious exemption.

"Wiping out that balance could very well lead to more litigation, and more of a clash in the courts than we’ve seen in a while," he says.

Opponents of the religious exemption were encouraged by a federal judge’s ruling in a New York vaccination case last year. The judge in that case cited a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that he said "strongly suggested that religious objectors are not constitutionally exempt from vaccinations."

Catherine Martin of the California Immunization Coalition believes that principle should be driving state policy on vaccine requirements.

"The Supreme Court and other courts have ruled consistently that religious belief does not give you the right to infect other people with disease," Martin says.

The state senator leading the charge to get rid of the personal belief exemption is Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). He has said he’s open to the possibility of maintaining the religious exemption, and to discussing how to do so while ensuring that vaccine rates remain high.

McReynolds says he hopes Pan will keep the exemption and take measures to ensure it doesn’t discriminate against people with religious beliefs outside of the mainstream.

"You have to be careful to be sure you aren’t limiting religious exemptions to people who are in certain well-defined groups," he says.

Martin says she thinks only people who can’t get vaccines for medical reasons should be allowed to skip them.