School vaccinations: Calif. Senate passes ban on vaccine exemptions

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Updated 12:50 p.m.: Calif. Senate passes ban on vaccine exemptions

California lawmakers on Monday sent the governor a contentious bill that would impose one of the strictest school vaccination laws in the country after a series of emotionally charged debates.

The Senate reaffirmed the bill striking California's personal belief and religious exemptions for immunizations on a 24-14 vote. 

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has not said if he would sign it.

Julia Horowitz/Associated Press

5 a.m.: California could be 3rd state to ban religious exemption

The state Senate is expected to vote today on final amendments to the hotly contested bill that would require nearly every child entering daycare or school to get vaccinated.

SB 277 - authored by Sens. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) - aims to boost California's vaccination rates by eliminating the religious and personal belief exemptions now available to parents. The measure would leave the medical exemption in place. 

Nationwide, more than 30 states don't allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children based on philosophical beliefs. But only two states – Mississippi and West Virginia – ban religious exemptions. That's the case, even though no major religion opposes vaccination.

Supporters of the bill say eliminating the religious exemption in California is necessary to ensure that shot-wary parents don’t falsely claim their religious beliefs prohibit vaccination. 

There is precedent for this concern: In New Mexico, where only religious exemptions are allowed, the state health department survey found 55 percent of parents who had exercised the religious exemption did so for philosophical reasons.  

The bill's authors and supporters argue that the elimination of the personal belief and religious exemptions will help boost  "herd immunity."  That's a type of immunity that occurs when enough people in a population are vaccinated against a contagious disease to protect those who can't be vaccinated, like infants and people with compromised immune systems.

Gov. Jerry Brown created California's religious exemption in 2012. By doing so, "people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner's signature," Brown wrote in a Sept. 30, 2012 signing letter.

A spokesman for Brown says the governor "believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit."

Brown has not indicated whether he wants to retain the religious vaccine exemption.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story may have implied that Mississippi and West Virginia were the only states with strict laws banning personal belief exemptions. Many states have such laws on the books, but those two states also specifically ban religious exemptions. California would be the third to ban both personal and religious exemptions.