Massachusetts Bill Would Eliminate Religious Exemptions For School Going Vaccination Requirements

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To attend both public and private schools in Massachusetts, students must prove that they’re vaccinated against certain diseases, unless they have a medical or religious exemption.

Now, some lawmakers on Beacon Hill want to eliminate the religious exemption. 

If “An Act Relative To Vaccines and Preventing Future Disease Outbreaks (H.4813) were to pass, the religious exemption would disappear for all kindergarten-through-grade-12 schools in Massachusetts.

The Joint Committee on Public Health of the Massachusetts Legislature is listed as the bill’s official sponsor. However, the current bill is a combination of two previously offered bills sponsored by state Representative Andres Vargas (D-Lawrence):  “An Act Relative To Vaccines and Preventing Future Disease Outbreaks” (H.2411), which sought to eliminate the religious exemption for vaccines in schools; and “An Act Promoting Community Immunity” (H.2271), which sought to standardize school districts’ vaccination reporting. 

The new bill (H.4813) eliminates the religious vaccination exemption by striking out the third paragraph of Section 15 of chapter 76 of Massachusetts General Laws. Here is what the current state statute says:


In the absence of an emergency or epidemic of disease declared by the department of public health, no child whose parent or guardian states in writing that vaccination or immunization conflicts with his sincere religious beliefs shall be required to present said physician’s certificate in order to be admitted to school.


The proposed bill would leave alone the first two paragraphs of the section, which lay out the vaccination requirements to attend school in Massachusetts as well as the available medical exemption.

Here is what that part of the current state statute says:


Section 15. No child shall, except as hereinafter provided, be admitted to school except upon presentation of a physician’s certificate that the child has been successfully immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles and poliomyelitis and such other communicable diseases as may be specified from time to time by the department of public health.

A child shall be admitted to school upon certification by a physician that he has personally examined such child and that in his opinion the physical condition of the child is such that his health would be endangered by such vaccination or by any of such immunizations. Such certification shall be submitted at the beginning of each school year to the physician in charge of the school health program. If the physician in charge of the school health program does not agree with the opinion of the child’s physician, the matter shall be referred to the department of public health, whose decision will be final.


The current version of the bill would also add two paragraphs to the law, adding stricter vaccination reporting requirements for all K-12 school districts in the state. Here is what the bill says on that matter:


All schools, whether public, private, or charter, that provide education to children in any combination of grade levels from kindergarten to grade 12, inclusive, shall annually report to the department total numbers of children who are successfully immunized in accordance with section 15 of chapter 76 and who are exempted from immunization requirements. The department shall designate the methodology for reporting.

The department shall annually publish and make publicly available aggregate immunizations and exemptions data for each school and school district, provided, that publishing and making publicly available such data shall not be required if it would result in disclosure of personal information as defined in section 1 of chapter 93H or otherwise violate applicable privacy laws. The department may also publish data by municipality, county, or other geographic designation, or otherwise in its discretion.

Speaking in favor of eliminating the religious exemption for vaccines in schools, Vargas said that he wants to protect public health. 

“I don’t think Massachusetts wants to develop the reputation of being a top importer of anti-VAXers or people who — for non-scientific or non-medical reasons — do not vaccinate their kids and thus put others in our public schools at risk, just because we still have this loophole,” Vargas told The Salem News.

Statewide, 1.0 percent of students are exempt from at least one vaccine, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This means that the vaccination rate against these viruses is 99 percent in the Bay State’s schools. 

The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts opposes the bill, arguing that it violates religious liberty. 

“The suppression of religious exemptions would also coerce the consciences and violate the religious liberty rights of Hasidic Jews, orthodox Catholics, and other pro-life citizens, who find the use of fetal tissue from aborted children, used in the production of various common vaccines, to be morally objectionable,” the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts said in a written statement. “Among the vaccines developed with fetal cells are several used to immunize children against mumps, measles, rubella and chickenpox. For Catholics … participation in such vaccinations could be construed as material cooperation with evil.”

The bill was reported on favorably by the Joint Committee on Public Health in May and was referred to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. However, it does not currently appear that the bill will come up for a vote in that committee or on the floor of each chamber before the legislative session is set to come to an end on July 31, 2022.

Massachusetts Family Institute president Andrew Beckwith told NewBostonPost that he’s glad to see no further action on this bill, to date.

“We are glad to see this threat to religious liberty, freedom of conscience and parental rights fail,” Beckwith said by email. “The outcry against the bill by so many parents, attorneys and medical professionals was overwhelming. And with MA already having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, this legislation was as unnecessary as it was unwanted.” 

Members of the Joint Committee on Public Health could not be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday this week; nor could Vargas.


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