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ACLU criticizes Calif. vaccine exemption bill

Photo by Kreg Steppe via Flickr Creative Commons

As the controversial vaccination bill cleared another legislative hurdle in Sacramento Tuesday, the measure's lead author responded to criticism from an unexpected quarter: the ACLU of California.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-1 to send SB 277 on to the appropriations committee, the bill's proponents tried to answer the civil liberties group's concern that the measure would violate the state constitution's guarantee of access to public education for all.

Under SB 277, parents would no longer be able to opt out of vaccinating their kids due to personal or religious beliefs when seeking to enroll them in daycare or school. The bill would preserve the medical exemption.

Some parents who oppose vaccination have said they will pull their kids from school if the bill becomes law.

In an April 2 letter to SB 277's authors, Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), ACLU of California Legislative Director Kevin Baker wrote, "we do not believe there has been a sufficient showing of need at present to warrant conditioning access to education on mandatory vaccination for each of the diseases covered by this bill for every school district in the state."

Baker argued that under the California Constitution, access to education may not be limited unless the state "demonstrates that its actions are necessary to achieve a compelling state interest." He said the bill "should be amended to explain specifically what that interest is, where it exists, and under what conditions and circumstances it arises."

Testifying in support of SB 277 at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Pan argued that there are two "compelling interests" justifying his bill:  the need to protect children and the general public from "death and disability due to preventable communicable diseases," and the need to ensure the "right to an education" for children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and a supporter of the bill, argued that "a health and safety requirement goes hand-in-hand with the right to education, not in tension with it." Requiring vaccinations for school "is a health and safety requirement," added Reiss. "The goal is to prevent disease in the schools and reduce outbreak."

The ACLU of Northern California issued a statement Tuesday clarifying that the organization is "neutral on SB 277." The clarification was accompanied by a statement from Baker in which he reiterated that, while "immunization is a valuable protection against outbreaks of infectious diseases," the ACLU also believes that "we need to proceed with great caution on any proposed law that deprives kids of their fundamental right to education by banning them from classrooms."