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Should California continue to allow parents to skip vaccines on religious grounds?

SAN PABLO, CA - NOVEMBER 06:  A nurse holds a syringe filled with flu vaccine during a drive-thru flu shot clinic at Doctors Medical Center on November 6, 2014 in San Pablo, California. Doctors Medical Center hosted a drive-thru flu shot clinic offering free vaccines for any community member over the age of 18.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California state senators proposing to end personal belief exemptions for vaccines say they're still deciding whether to allow exemptions for religious objectors.

State lawmakers are grappling with the question of whether to continue allowing Californians to opt out of vaccinating their children on religious grounds.

A bill that two state senators plan to introduce in the coming weeks would eliminate that option, along with all so-called personal belief exemptions, leaving only medical exemptions in place. 

Even though it’s hard to find a religion that prohibits vaccines, the two senators behind the bill say they’re considering leaving a religious exemption in place. They’re concerned, however, that doing so could leave it vulnerable to abuse by parents willing to falsely claim that their religious beliefs prohibit vaccines.

This is a problem that’s been documented in at least one other state. In New Mexico — which does not allow parents to skip vaccines for personal or philosophical reasons — health officials recently surveyed more than 700 parents who had gotten a religious exemption. More than half of the parents surveyed said their objection to vaccines was primarily personal, not religious.

California is one of 48 states that allow parents to skip vaccinating their children by citing religious objections. 

One of the California bill’s authors, Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), told KPCC he hopes to craft a bill that will "ensure the integrity of the [religious] exemption."

But some experts believe doing so is impossible.

"My sincere opinion is that there’s not a good way to make a religious exemption that won’t be vulnerable to abuse," said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the UC Hastings College of Law who has tracked how different states handle vaccine exemptions.

One of the reasons, she said, is that states cannot limit religious exemptions to members of a mainstream or organized religion. If they could, it would be easy for states to verify parents’ claims by requiring some kind of documentation, like a pastor or religious advisor’s signature.

But Reiss pointed out that courts have repeatedly ruled that limiting vaccine exemptions to members of organized religions discriminates against people who have sincere religious beliefs that may be more obscure or even theirs alone.

What this means is that once a state decides to allow religious exemptions, it generally has to accept a parent’s claim that the family’s religious beliefs prohibit vaccines, even if officials suspect the parent is lying.

That said, it is possible to make religious exemptions harder to get. Some states impose more onerous requirements in the hope that only parents with sincere religious beliefs or the most determined vaccine opponents make the effort.

About half of the states with a religious exemption require parents to write a letter stating their faith-based objection to vaccines, rather than just allowing them to check a box on a form. At least a dozen states require requests for religious exemptions to be notarized by a licensed notary public.

Several states require parents to renew their request every year that their child enrolls in school. And at least one, Montana, informs parents that lying about their religious beliefs in order to get a religious exemption is punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail.

The law in some states, like New York, says a parent’s religious beliefs must be "genuine" or "sincere," which generally gives officials a little more ability to scrutinize claims of religious objection to vaccines, according to Reiss.

Still, she said, there are ways around that scrutiny. For example, you could join the Congregation of Universal Wisdom. It’s a church that Dr. Walter Schilling, a chiropractor, runs out of his home in a New Jersey suburb. There are no meeting places and Schilling is its sole administrator, but one of its central tenets is that pharmaceutical vaccines are prohibited.

For a $75 fee sent to his home, Schilling will mail a membership certificate and a statement of his group’s anti-vaccine stance.

"I don’t perpetrate they should join for immunization purposes particularly," Schilling said when reached by phone. "But if they believe in the tenets, which is a matter of connecting man the spiritual with man the physical, then fine. Because that’s what we do."

When one New York school district tried to keep a member of Schilling's group out of school on the grounds that her religious claim was bogus, the girl’s mother sued and prevailed in court.

The Congregation of Universal Wisdom has nearly 12,000 members in 41 states, according to Schilling. Only 66 are from California, though Schilling said that number could grow if California tightens its rules for claiming religious exemptions.

Opponents  of religious exemptions point to Schilling’s church as proof that there’s always a way around them. 

California State Senator Ben Allen said he and his colleagues working on the bill are still deciding what to do, and hope to have a more specific proposal within a couple of weeks.

"I think everything’s on the table right now," said Allen. "We’re looking at everything," including eliminating religious exemptions altogether, he added.