ALBANY — The state Legislature voted Thursday to abolish a religious exemption to vaccine requirements, following the worst measles outbreak in the nation in 27 years.
Following weeks of debate, the state Senate and Assembly narrowly approved a bill that eliminated the exemption, which had allowed parents to cite nonmedical reasons for refusing vaccinations, which are required to enter public school.
The state can’t force anyone to be vaccinated, supporters said, but it can prevent them from going to school or day care to protect public health.
“We’re putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immunocompromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can’t be vaccinated through no fault of their own,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. “With our actions today, we can help avoid future outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, immediately signed the bill into law. It takes effect immediately.
"While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks," he said in a statement.
It capped a contentious day full of protests, epithets, last-minute switching of votes and backroom persuasion.
The Senate approved the bill, 36-26. There was far more drama in the Assembly where leaders had to call members back to their seats from committee meetings and other activities to make sure they had the 76 votes needed to approve any bill. That triggered an intense conference at the desk of Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and a flurry of phone calls.
After a lag, more lawmakers entered the chamber, flashing a thumbs up. Leaders realized they had 77 votes and announced the outcome as 77-53. Once all the straggling lawmakers had voted, the final tally was 84-61.
When the Assembly tally was announced, dozens of protesters in the observation gallery above the chamber shouted obscenities, called lawmakers “Murderers!” and threatened, “We’ll be back for you!”
The Centers for Disease Control reported this month that measles cases now number 1,022, the highest number since a 1992 outbreak. New York accounts for more than 800 cases, most of them connected to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Rockland County and Brooklyn. The rate of reported cases has slowed, linked to the warmer weather, officials have said.
A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 measles cases in the U.S. and health officials had declared the disease eliminated.
About 45 other states feature religious, philosophic or “nonmedical” exemptions, though some are considering repeal. If the bill is signed into law, New York joins California, Maine, West Virginia and Mississippi in eliminating such exemptions. Maine acted last month.
Defenders of the exemption suggested ending it would violate the right to freedom of religion. However, federal court decisions dating back to 1905 have upheld laws requiring children to be vaccinated before they can attend school, saying compulsory vaccinations don’t violate constitutional rights.
Some lawmakers said they doubted the seriousness of the measles outbreak and the push to get more people vaccinated.
“I don’t think it’s an epidemic. I don’t think it’s an outbreak,” Assemb. Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Brooklyn) said, adding she was concerned about “corporations that are pushing this agenda.”
Bichotte’s comments came during a fractious meeting of the Assembly Health Committee which advanced the bill by a 14-12 vote only after Assemb. Nader Sayegh (D-Yonkers) changed his vote to yes, he said, for the purpose of bringing it to the full Assembly for a vote.
Vaccine protesters filled the halls outside the Senate and Assembly and filled the chamber balconies overlooking lawmakers. One hoisted a sign reading “God before government!”
Daniela Elefteriadis, a Farmingdale resident, displayed a letter from her 16-year-old twin sons, saying they are strong science students and athletes who are faced with being banned from their public high school because they refuse further vaccinations.
“I want to put my trust in God’s plan for me, but this is something that is being held against me and used to take away my education rights,” the letter from Thomas and Joseph Elefteriadis read.
Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), like many legislators who voted no, said he supports vaccinations while adding: “But I think this is a step too far, and it is too great an infringement on religious beliefs.”
"Choosing not to vaccinate without a legitimate medical reason is an affront to the rights of children and parents across New York State,” Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) countered. “Children have a right to attend our schools without being exposed to preventable disease. Parents have a right to feel safe sending their children to child care, camp, and other group activities without fear of putting the health of their families at risk.”
With Michael Gormley