ALBANY – New York State eliminated the religious exemption to vaccine requirements for schoolchildren Thursday, as the nation’s worst measles outbreak in decades prompts states to reconsider giving parents ways to opt out of immunization rules.
The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly voted to repeal the exemption, which allows parents to cite religious beliefs to forego getting their child the vaccines required for school enrollment.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the measure minutes after the final vote. The law takes effect immediately but will give unvaccinated students up to 30 days after they enter a school to show they’ve had the first dose of each required immunization.
With New York’s move, similar exemptions are still allowed in 45 states, though lawmakers in several of them have introduced their own legislation to eliminate the waiver.
The issue is hotly contested and debate around it has often been emotional, pitting cries that religious freedom is being curtailed against warnings that public health is being endangered. After the vote in the Assembly, many of those watching from the gallery erupted in cries of “shame!” One woman yelled obscenities down to the lawmakers below.
The debate has only intensified with this year’s measles outbreak , which federal officials recently said has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years.
Hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children gathered at New York’s Capitol for the vote to protest.
The bill would not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.
Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday that he believes public health — and the need to protect those who cannot get vaccinated because for medical reasons — outweighs the concerns about religious freedom.
“I understand freedom of religion,” said Cuomo. “I have heard the anti-vaxxers’ theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk.”
The current measles outbreak has renewed concern about the exemptions in many states. The nation last saw as many cases in 1992, when more than 2,200 were reported.