By: Maddie Loewenguth 

In the summer of 2019, after a series of measles outbreaks in New York schools during the previous academic year, a new state law was passed that ended the religious exemption for vaccinations.

Under the new law, Public Health Law Section 2164 and New York Codes, Rules and Regulations Title 10, Subpart 66-1, all children attending public, private or parochial school in New York State must be immune to diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, varicella, and meningococcal in accordance with Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommendations. 

In the fall of 2019, all children had to begin getting their vaccines within the first two weeks of classes and complete them by the end of the school year, June 2020. This new law affects about 26,000 New York children who previously obtained religious exemptions. Parents who chose not to vaccinate their children had two options, home school or move out of New York. 

The measles outbreak began in New York City in October of 2018. There were 654 reported cases in New York City and 414 in other parts of the state. The majority of the cases involved unvaccinated children in Hasidic Jewish communities. Dr. Oxibris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner issued a statement that the “best defense against renewed transmission is having a well immunized city.”

The passage of the New York State law took place on June 13th. New York is now the fifth state following California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia, to enact a law requiring children in public schools to be vaccinated and barring all nonmedical exemptions to vaccinations. New York is now considered the state with the strictest policies in the nation. 

Maine’s law does not go into effect until 2021 and makes exceptions for special education students. California, where nonmedical exemptions ended in 2015 allows districts to exempt disabled children. 

All states require children to receive certain vaccinations before entering public school, but every state allows exemptions for children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. There are also states that allow for religious exemptions and for nonreligious exemptions based on personal belief. 

Several states have banned nonmedical exceptions, others have imposed rigorous requirements for parents seeking nonmedical exemptions. For example, in Nebraska, parents must submit “an affidavit signed by a legally authorized representative stating that the immunization conflicts with the tenets and practices of a recognized religious denomination of which the student is a member.” 

Three states also specify that “philosophical arguments” must not be cited as a basis for granting a religious exemption. For example, Alaska law states that “statements indicating philosophical or personal opposition to vaccines will invalidate religious documentation.” 

Parents are advocating on both sides of the issue, those against vaccines, either believe that their children have been injured by previous vaccinations or that it is against their religion to vaccinate their children and are exploring homeschooling options. Parents on the other side are worried about the effect non-vaccinated children will have on the health of their children and are asking schools not to place their children in classrooms with students who have not been vaccinated. 

The most recent news regarding the NYS immunization battle is the introduction of the HPV vaccine to be added to the mandatory list of vaccines for New York schoolchildren. HPV is associated with many cases of cervical cancer and the rates at which parents are vaccinating their children is dropping. It will be interesting to see if the HPV vaccination bill will pass and be added to the list of mandatory vaccines, as well as what states will follow New York in barring non-medical exemptions.  

Sharon Otterman, Get Vaccinated of Leave School: 26,000 N.Y. Children Face a Choice, New York Times, (Sept. 6. 2019)

Leksandra Sandstrom, Amid Measles Outbreak, New York closes religious exemption for vaccinations but most states retain it,Pew Research Center(June 28, 2019).

N.Y. Pub. Health Law§ 2164 (Consol. 2019). 

David Robinson, HPV Vaccine Joins NY school immunization battle, (Jan 11, 2020).