Vaccination exemption stays for now

Senator Miller won’t pursue bill to strike religious exemption

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The state senator who introduced legislation that would remove religion as a reason for parents to refuse vaccinations mandated by the state for their children said Monday he has no plans to push the bill and would let it die in committee.

The action was greeted as “fantastic news” by one of two grandmothers who mounted Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations, a group that has gained momentum following the Department of Health (HEALTH) mandate that all seventh-graders be vaccinated for the sexually transmitted disease starting this year.

“My concern,” Cranston Sen. Josh Miller said Monday, “is that [the religious exemption] was not being used appropriately.” He added that people who refuse to be vaccinated have the potential of “endangering a larger population.”

Miller observed that California has removed religion as a reason to opt out of vaccinations, and he was of the belief that Rhode Island is ready to consider similar action. Instead, what he found during a committee hearing this spring is a “lack of understanding.” He said that contrary to the argument that the bill disregards religious beliefs, it would “respect” those beliefs because people are using the religious argument when, in fact, all they are looking to do is circumvent the law on vaccinations.

Linda McLaughlin, the co-founder of the Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations, with Joan Lowder, is relieved to know parents will still have a mechanism to refuse the vaccination should the health department adhere to its current policy. Presently, there are two means of exemption: a medical exemption, which is considered to be difficult to obtain, and the religious exemption, which apparently is not questioned by the state.

The exemptions are not publicized, and McLaughlin said on Monday alone she received calls from two parents who reported that their child’s physician insisted they receive the HPV vaccination.

“They are being told they have to do this,” she said.

McLaughlin and Lowder questioned the state mandate when they reviewed medical forms for their grandchildren, who will be attending junior high school this fall. They were being told their grandchildren couldn’t attend school if they weren’t vaccinated. They reached out for others through Facebook and contacted HEALTH, which agreed to meet with the group for an informational session on July 27.

About 60 people, mostly mothers, showed up for the Warwick meeting. Members of the audience were well versed on the purpose of the vaccination and studies regarding its effectiveness as a protection against cervical cancer and other sexually transmitted diseases. They questioned why some countries are no longer advocating the HPV vaccination.

Following that meeting, HEALTH announced a series of five informational sessions throughout the state, the first of which is to be held Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Barrington Library. Another session is planned for this Thursday at the same time at the HEALTH office at 3 Capitol Hill in Providence.

McLaughlin said HEALTH has not responded to questions brought up at their July meeting, nor has the group heard from Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The Facebook group, meanwhile, has grown exponentially. In the last week it has picked up more than 1,100 members and now is about 1,700 strong.

The issue of mandatory HPV vaccinations and the possibility of eliminating the religious exemption have also caught the attention of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The center recommends parents who have questions about the vaccination or oppose it use the religious exemption.

“Disturbingly, Senator Josh Miller and Senator Gayle Goldin have introduced legislation to severely restrict religious liberty in Rhode Island. Senate Bill 0381 wants to end religious exemption for immunizations like HPV. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island on the concept of religious liberty. Do not allow this legislation to threaten the principles on which our state was founded,” writes Mike Stenhouse, the center’s CEO.

Miller wasn’t interested by the center’s reaction.

“I’ve never seen an accurate piece of information coming out of this entity,” Miller said.

The mandate and legislation to remove the religious exemption have also raised concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU policy associate Hillary Davis said the organization opposed the Miller/Goldin bill on the basis that it would remove a means to avoid the vaccinations from “parents who have legitimate concerns.”

As for the mandate for HPV, she said, “We’re talking about excluding kids from school from an illness they’re not catching at school. If kids are catching it at school, we’ve got a bigger problem.”

Davis said there are “certain illnesses that may be appropriate to mandate vaccines,” but HPV is not one of them.

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