march 3, 2020 elections

Voters to decide fate of immunization exemption law

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 6:00pm

AUGUSTA — Voters heading to the polls March 3 will be faced with one state referendum question, a people’s veto to legislation signed into law by Governor Janet Mills in May 2019. 

The question on the ballot reads: Do you want to reject the new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions to requiring immunization against certain communicable diseases for students to attend schools and colleges and for employees of nursery schools and health care facilities?

For the people’s veto to appear on statewide ballots, opponents of the law needed to submit a minimum of 63,067 valid signatures, representative of 10 percent of total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. 

Those behind the people’s veto effort submitted 95,871 signatures on 29,370 petitions Sept. 18, 2019 to the Secretary of State. 

Of the nearly 100,000 signatures, 16,815 were deemed to be not valid leaving 79,056 valid signatures, still above the minimum requirement. 

With the current language of the law, scheduled to take effect Sept. 2021, individuals would not be permitted to object to the requirement of being declared free from communicable disease on the grounds of religious or philosophical beliefs. 

Rather than permitting objection on the grounds of religious or philosophical beliefs, parents or students would need to provide a written statement from a licensed physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant stating it is within their professional judgement that immunization against the noted diseases is medically inadvisable.  

Students currently covered by individualized education plans when the law is enacted in September 2021 who elected a philosophical or religious exemption before September 2021 may continue under the exemption if they provide the aforementioned medical exemption note and so long as the parent, guardian or student is aware of the risks and benefits of immunization. 

The law was designed to strengthen the safety of schools and daycare facilities by ensuring children attending have certain immunizations, according to the Maine Immunization Coalition

The state’s immunity rates are dropping to levels causing outbreaks across the state, according to the coalition, which says immunity is required to keep diseases from appearing and/or spreading. 

All public and private elementary and secondary schools, as well as universities, college and daycares would be mandated to follow this law. Some health care facilities, and their employees, would also be included. 

Students would be required to be protected from diptheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chicken pox, and meningococcal meningitis. 

Students would not be required to be  protected against Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Haemophilus Influenza B (HiB), Rotavirus, Tuberculosis (TB), and Influenza (Flu).

In the 2017-18 school year, 5.3 percent of Maine students received an exemption to the immunization mandate, with 0.3 percent being medical exemptions. 

Opponents to the law say they are not opposed to immunization. Rather, they oppose the mandate from the government on the topic and feel the government is stripping away parental rights and religious freedoms. 

“We are against this legislation in part because of the ambiguity and broadness of the language,” said Mike McClellan, Policy Director for the Christian Civic League of Maine, in senate testimony. “We are certainly against this legislation as it clearly seeks to remove religious rights and sincerely held philosophical rights of the people of Maine. These are rights that did not come from the State of Maine, and the State of Maine has no right to take them away. To take even one of these rights would be a far overreach by the state but to seek both in one bill is incredible.” 

As of May 2019, only three other states had similar laws including California, West Virginia and Mississippi. 

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