BOSTON -- Religious exemptions for most vaccinations for school-aged children would be banned in Massachusetts under a legislative proposal gaining traction on Beacon Hill.

The legislation, which has received a favorable vote by the Legislature's Public Health Committee, would eliminate a section of the state's vaccine law that allows parents with "sincere religious beliefs" to be exempted from a requirement to submit proof of vaccination in order to enroll their children in public schools.

The proposal wouldn't require COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations, which currently are not mandated by the state for K-12 schools.

Under the plan, schools would be required to provide information to the state about immunizations and medical exemptions among students. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would be required to publish the data annually.

Medical exemptions, certified by a physician, would still be permitted.

Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, one of the proposal's primary sponsors, said the "loophole" in state law allowing religious exemptions compromises overall public health and needs to be removed "for the health and safety of kids."

He said Massachusetts is lagging behind other states that have removed religious exemptions "to highly proven effective childhood vaccines." During hearings on the bill, lawmakers heard testimony that people who don't vaccinate their children are flocking to Massachusetts because it still allows religious exemptions, he said.

"I don't think Massachusetts wants to develop the reputation of being a top importer of anti-VAXers or people who -- for non-scientific or non-medical reasons -- do not vaccinate their kids and thus put others in our public schools at risk, just because we still have this loophole," Vargas said. 

Massachusetts, like most states, requires students to be vaccinated for major illnesses such as diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles and poliomyelitis to attend public schools, though parents may cite religious reasons, in addition to medical ones, for opting out of the requirements. The rules apply to private school students as well.

Parents who object to vaccination for non-medical reasons must notify their child's school in writing of the conflict with their religious beliefs.

The measure is one of several vaccine exemption bills filed during the two-year legislative session, including one filed by Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, the House's second assistant majority leader. That bill, which would have kept religious exemptions, was seen as a compromise between supporters and opponents of the changes. 

Vargas, who filed his bill in response to a nationwide spike in measles infections before the COVID-19 pandemic, said the version that emerged from the Public Health Committee also includes important requirements on data collection, "which can help us stay one step ahead of any potential outbreaks."

The push on Beacon Hill to eliminate religious exemptions has been helped by the Massachusetts Medical Society, a group representing physicians, which in 2019 adopted a new policy opposing vaccine exemptions for schoolchildren for non-medical reasons. The group recently updated its policy to oppose all non-medical vaccination exemptions. 

"During the past couple years, we have witnessed the role that effective and safe vaccines play in reducing the spread of diseases that cause severe complications and disrupt day-to-day functionality in many settings, including schools," Dr. Ted Calianos, the society's newly elected president, said in a statement. "The elimination of non-medical exemptions will increase vaccine uptake and reduce the possibility of preventable diseases being transmitted in the community and jeopardizing public health." 

But the move faces a backlash -- and the possibility of legal challenges -- from conservative and faith groups, which argue it would violate religious liberties.

The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts says banning non-medical exemptions would "violate the religious freedom rights of Hasidic Jews, orthodox Catholics and others who find the use of fetal tissue from aborted children, used in the production of the measles vaccine, to be morally objectionable."

Some vaccines — including those for rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis — are propagated in cells taken from legally aborted fetuses, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

But physicians groups say claims by religious objectors that vaccines contain a significant amount of human fetal tissue are misleading.

The proposal will still need to be approved by the House and Senate before landing on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk for consideration. 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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