New York Eliminates Religious Exemptions for Vaccinations

Lawmakers in New York, the epicenter of the nation’s measles outbreak, voted on Thursday to end religious exemptions for immunizations, overcoming opposition by vaccine skeptics and others who said the measure infringed on religious and constitutional rights, The New York Times reported.

Calling it a public health emergency, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill, adding New York to a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine.

The issue is particularly acute in New York, where many measles cases have originated in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and in Rockland County, where so-called vaccine symposiums have featured speakers who encouraged people to shun immunization.

The tension over the issue was readily apparent in the Capitol on Thursday as hundreds of angry opponents, many with young children and infants, pleaded with lawmakers to reject the bill, sometimes invoking the will of God, other times their rights as parents. The show of raw emotion affected even supporters of the bill.

Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Long Island Republican, framed the bill as “an attack on people’s First Amendment rights.” He added, “It’s still the individual parent, who is raising this child, that has the fundamental right to decide what happens with their child in all facets of their life.”

Others cast their votes in personal terms. Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat, noted that his county had 266 confirmed cases, with more than a dozen hospitalizations. His 1-year-old daughter had to accelerate her vaccinations, he said, because of the outbreak there.

“Our job is not just to react to epidemics,” Zebrowski said before voting yes. “Our job as legislators is to prevent epidemics.”

As the Assembly vote slowly came in, the speaker, Carl E. Heastie, was forced to come to the floor and count votes, calling recalcitrant members to coax the bill toward the 76-vote threshold needed for passage. Several prominent Democrats, including the chairman of the health committee, Richard N. Gottfried, bucked Assembly leadership and voted no. In the end, it narrowly passed, 77 to 53.

As soon the vote count was called, shouts of “shame”, and more colorful invective, erupted from the Assembly gallery, where opponents had gathered to watch the proceedings. Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry attempted to restore order, but the screams continued; unable to stop the shouting, Aubry took the chamber into recess as furious opponents headed into Capitol hallways, the Times adds.

The State Senate, where the vote was assured because of solid support in a Democratic majority, approved the bill, 36-26. Cuomo, a three-term Democrat, signed the legislation moments after it passed the Senate, saying that vaccines “are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe.”

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