A freshman lawmaker is thrusting Massachusetts into the thorny debate over childhood vaccinations by proposing a statewide ban on religious exemptions.
A new proposal by Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, would eliminate a provision of the state's vaccine law which declares that "no child whose parent or guardian states in writing that vaccination or immunization conflicts with his sincere religious beliefs shall be required" to submit proof of vaccination in order to enroll in school.
His proposal comes amid a national debate prompted by a measles outbreak in two dozen states that has been attributed to unvaccinated children.
Vargas, who is Catholic, said he "understands and respects" peoples' religious beliefs, but he said the health and safety of other schoolchildren is paramount.
"Our first priority needs to be public health," he said. "Nobody has a constitutional right to infect another person's child with an illness because of their religious beliefs."
His proposal is likely to win support from the Massachusetts Medical Society, which two weeks ago adopted a policy opposing vaccine exemptions for school-age children for non-medical reasons.
The society's president, Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, said the physicians group looks forward to working with lawmakers "who believe that the public should make use of a proven and safe way to prevent disease that can be quite serious" to approve Vargas' measure and send it to Gov. Charlie Baker for consideration.
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.
Parents’ religious views were cited for 687 children who attended kindergarten in the 2017-18 school year without the required vaccinations, according to the state Department of Public Health. Non-medical reasons were cited for 738 children who enrolled that year in state-funded child care and preschool programs.
It's not clear whether the measure, which had five co-sponsors including Vargas as of Monday, will garner support in the Legislature. There is currently no Senate version of the bill.
What's more, efforts to ban the exemptions are expected to draw fierce opposition -- and likely legal challenges -- from conservative groups that argue they violate religious liberties.