A fight to end religious exemptions for vaccinations in NY state becomes a race

King Singh, 5, speaks at a news conference Tuesday with his father, Michael Singh, left, making the case for a bill that would end religious exemptions for vaccinations in New York state.
King Singh, 5, speaks at a news conference Tuesday with his father, Michael Singh, left, making the case for a bill that would end religious exemptions for vaccinations in New York state. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Lawmakers on Tuesday were joined by immunocompromised kids and their parents in a last-ditch effort to urge the passage of a bill that would end religious exemptions for vaccinations in New York State.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman expressed optimism that the voices of those who cannot get vaccinations due to their weakened immune systems will help propel the measure to success; but with less than two weeks left in the current legislative session, which ends June 19, time is running out.

“We have an obligation to protect our kids from vaccine-preventable illnesses, and we need to live up to it,” said Hoylman, who noted New York City has a Parents’ Bill of Rights that asserts the right to a free public school education for children in a safe environment. “We are not fulfilling that right if we do not take every step, every measure at our disposal, to reduce vaccine-preventable illnesses.”

The legislation, currently stalled in both the Senate and the Assembly health committees, would revise state public health law so that only children with medical issues preventing vaccinations would be exempt from the requirements within the public school system.

The most recent statistics presented Tuesday show 843 measles cases in New York State alone, and 940 cases nationwide. More than 460 cases have been declared in New York City. The severity of the outbreak led Mayor de Blasio in April to declare a health emergency.

Yet de Blasio has expressed apprehension about any measures that would take away the existing religious exemption, which allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids on religious grounds, arguing religious communities in New York are not the root of the problem, but rather anti-vaccination propaganda has fueled the current crisis.

But Sen. Hoylman said the religious exemption provides a loophole for anti-vaccination parents — those who do not have earnest religious objections are using the exemption to get around the requirements that would otherwise apply to them. Under the current system, parents fill out a form and a school supervisor is tasked with evaluating the claim.

“The truth is most of these just slide through uncontested because who is in a position to question someone else’s religious beliefs?” said Hoylman. “That is why we need to remove religion from the equation altogether.”

Hoylman, who was joined by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Sen. David Carlucci, noted California had already tightened vaccination exemptions after relatively few cases in the state.

At Tuesday’s news conference, a handful of immunocompromised individuals, most of them children, spoke to the dangers posed to them by the spread of vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles.

King Singh, 5, of Queens Village, is home-schooled because his high-risk leukemia makes him more susceptible to these illnesses, which are far more dangerous to him than to those with strong immune systems. Singh’s father, Michael Singh, said the decision to home-school his children — King’s brother is home-schooled as well, so he doesn’t bring sickness home from school — was not an easy one, but as parents he and his wife had to protect their child.

“We want him to socialize with other children, but the risk of him catching something that’s preventable by a vaccine is too high and he’s very susceptible to infection,” said Michael Singh, who said he is unsure what kind of hospitalization and cost the measles would require.

“It’s hard for a parent to home-school their child,” he continued. “It’s not something we want to do. We have to do it for his sake, especially with the current outbreak. We don’t want to take that chance.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday morning spoke in support of the bill on WNYC in conversation with Brian Lehrer.

“You have a right to your religious beliefs, you don’t have a right to infect my child,” Cuomo said. “And that is the balance between your individual right and the community’s rights. And I think the scale of justice tips in the favor of the community on this issue.”

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