Maine voters overwhelmingly support law barring religious exemption from student vaccination requirement

by | Mar 17, 2020

Super Tuesday feels like months ago, but one result especially caught my attention. In Maine, the presidential primary was not the only matter on the ballot. Question 1 asked voters in that state whether to repeal a new vaccination law that forbids all non-medical exemptions, including exemptions based on religious beliefs. Voters soundly rejected that proposal, by a nearly 3-1 margin, leaving the vaccination law in place as enacted.

The Maine legislature passed the measure last year. It goes into effect in September 2021. NPR reports that 5% of kindergartners – more than twice the nation’s average – are currently un-vaccinated under the religious exemption in the state, which also suffers the 2nd highest rate of whooping cough in the nation. The law made Maine the 5th state to adopt a vaccination policy that forbids religious, philosophical, or other non-medical exemptions – joining West Virginia, Mississippi, New York and California.

Other states continue to wrestle with this controversial issue.

In Connecticut, over the objections of thousands of protestors at the state capitol, a bill passed out of legislative committee in February that would have ended all religious exemptions from immunization requirements. The bill has not progressed, but Gov. Ned Lamont recently urged the legislature to take the matter up, “especially now with coronavirus and everything surrounding us.”

A similar proposal in Massachusetts, where the number of parents claiming religious exemptions is reportedly on the rise and as high as 25% at some schools, is stalled in committee. A Boston Globe editorial speculates that if the proposal passed in Massachusetts, “a referendum challenging it would be unlikely to get any more traction here [than it did in Maine].” The piece goes on to make a connection to the coronavirus:

Thus far, there’s no vaccine for the coronavirus. But this scary outbreak should remind us how lucky we are to have vaccines against other life-threatening diseases — and of the need for laws to ensure those vaccines are used. Massachusetts should get this legislation to protect the public on the books.

A new report on a recent study in Texas found that from 2012 to 2018, conscientious vaccination exemptions in the state more than doubled.

For more on the topic of vaccinations and religious objections, see a 2015 column from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman during a religious liberty controversy that year surrounding a measles outbreak. Hollman emphasized that when it comes to the health of children, the government’s interest is very strong.  “Religious liberty,” she wrote, “does not require granting religious exemptions to immunization laws or similar interests that are required for public health and safety.”