Crisis of faith: State pols want to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccination before measles outbreak subsides

Sick of it: Anti-vaxxers protest a press conference promoting a bill to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccinations on Tuesday.
Photo by Colin Mixson

A cadre of New York lawmakers want to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccinations before a state-wide measles outbreak subsides, with one upstate senator claiming the political will to ax the exemption hinges on fears stoked by the epidemic that’s overwhelmingly affected unvaccinated Brooklynites.

“The fear is we lose this opportunity,” said Sen. David Carlucci, who represents Rockland County, which is combating its own measles outbreak. “As we lose the outbreak right now, there’s a sense of security that’s just not real. We’ve seen how vulnerable we are, and we need to say New Yorkers are at risk, we need to take action, and we can’t wait for session to be over, because then it will be too late.”

Carlucci joined Manhattan senate colleague Brad Hoylman and Bronx Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz at a press conference near City Hall on May 28, where they hoped to drum up support for Senate bill S2994 and its Assembly counterpart A2371 before the current legislative season ends on June 19.

The lawmakers are looking to follow in the footsteps of California legislators — whose repeal of the Golden State’s religious exemption lead to state-wide increases in immunization — as the measles virus continues to sweep through New York, where it has infected 843 people since October. Of those, 535 cases were discovered in Brooklyn, where the disease has spread rapidly through Orthodox Jewish communities in Borough Park and Williamsburg, in addition to infecting 12 non-Jewish residents of Sunset Park.

The state’s religious exemption allows unvaccinated children to attend public schools, where students would otherwise require a more stringent medical exemption to enroll without inoculations.

At the press conference, a group of cancer survivors — all students — suffering severely compromised immune systems joined the politicians, who spoke out about the extraordinary care they must take to avoid disease and infection, saying that sharing a classroom with an unvaccinated classmate could lead to the end of their lives.

“We’re just trying to live,” said Teela Wyman, a 26-year-old law student who survived stage four lymphoma cancer, and required lung surgery three times last year due to infections, including one caused by the flu. “We’re just trying to be normal people. These diseases are preventable.”

Proponents of the exemption claim it’s a protection guaranteed by the First Amendment, while also arguing that the vast majority of non-vaccinated New Yorkers do not have a religious exemption, and that repealing it would have little practical effect on the spread of disease.

“It’s outrageous to try and take our religious exemptions away, when we make up less than half of one percent of the unvaccinated population,” said Queens resident Adreana Rodriguez, who joined a small group of anti-vaxxers outside the City Council’s Broadway office building to protest Hoylman and his colleagues.

Mayor de Blasio also disagreed that religion contributes significantly to immunization, and at a press conference earlier this month claimed the problem lies in anti-vaccination rhetoric, which eliminating the exemption would not affect, according to a Politico report.

“Just listen to my logic pattern here,” de Blasio said. “Somehow ending the religious exemptions doesn’t address what happened here where the anti-vaxxers convinced people not to get vaccinations. That’s the root of the problem.”

Hoylman, however, argued that unscrupulous anti-vaxxers are taking advantage of the religious exemption to enroll their unvaccinated kids in school, despite their objections being rooted in junk science — not faith.

“The religious exemption is a loophole,” said the Manhattan lawmaker. “It is masking someone’s conspiracy against vaccinations, and it needs to be closed.”

Ironically enough, a proponent of the religious exemption protesting outside Hoylman’s press conference Tuesday said it must not be repealed precisely because it’s a loophole for anti-vaxxers, claiming it’s the only recourse that parents — who attribute developmental disorders, including autism, in their children to recent vaccinations — have after they’re denied the medical exemption by doctors.

“It’s their only loophole right now,” said Flatbush resident Carolyn Battino. “It protects anyone who says to themselves, ‘I have a reason.’”

Vaccines do not cause autism, according to the Center of Disease Control.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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