Mandated vaccination bill advances

vaccine121014After a surprisingly fierce challenge from anti-vaccine advocates, Sacramento legislators worried about the language of the landmark new vaccination bill have succeeded in crafting a passable draft.

As CalWatchdog reported previously, supporters of SB 277 discovered that its original wording could be interpreted as unconstitutionally depriving some children of an education.

Last month, the ACLU began raising the constitutional alarm. Kevin G. Baker, legislative director of the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, wrote the bill’s sponsors to suggest some possible alternatives, according to the Los Angeles Times: 

In his letter, Baker suggested that a 16-month-old state law, AB 2109, should be given more of a chance to work before taking such a drastic step. That legislation requires health professionals to discuss the benefits and risks of immunization with parents before they are allowed to file belief exemptions, and it has already led to an increase in vaccination rates.

Lawmakers, however, did not respond. Rather than taking such a circuitous path, they focused on honing SB 277 to a point where the force of the constitutional objections could simply be blunted. The core provisions of SB 277 went unchanged as legislators retooled its language. Co-authored by state Sens. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, the bill “would eliminate personal belief and religious exemptions for vaccines, and unvaccinated children could not attend public or private school in California,” as the San Jose Mercury News noted. Students barred from school attendance would, under the bill’s requirements, be homeschooled.

Narrow changes, big consequences

To evade the possibility of selective educational discrimination, however, Pan and Allen rewrote the bill to permit broader access to educational resources for unvaccinated kids. Summarizing the changes, California Healthline reported that one new provision allowed them to “enroll in private home-schooling programs that serve multiple families, rather than programs that serve just one family,” while another enabled them to “[p]articipate in independent study projects that are overseen by school districts but do not include classroom time.”

Moreover, a small but significant carve-out was created to allay some persistent concerns about the scope of legislative authority over vaccination. Legislators tweaked the bill “to include a new provision that would limit vaccinations to only those 10 vaccines currently required by California Department of Public Health,” according to the Bee. “Parents would be allowed to obtain a personal belief exemption for any vaccine added in the future.” Under state law, the personal belief exemption has been understood to encompass the religious belief exemption.

Although the changes impacting private schooling and independent study made the more immediate difference in terms of the bill’s prospects, the vaccine-limiting provision carried much greater legal significance. Critics of the bill had argued strenuously against eliminating California’s religious and personal belief exemptions altogether, without regard to changes in medical opinion or future legislative requirements.

More hurdles

Although SB 277 in amended form has now cleared the Senate Education Committee and will find stronger support as it heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, further changes were predicted before its final form takes shape. “Several senators said additional amendments will likely be needed as the bill moves forward to ensure that unvaccinated kids are not denied the education guaranteed to them by the California Constitution,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Several lawmakers said they would like to see more school options for those who aren’t immunized, other than home school and independent study.”

Additionally, the Chronicle reported, the bill may need approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee before moving to the full Senate, and requires five affirmative votes in the Judiciary Committee to proceed. “The five Democrats on the committee,” however, “are either supporters of the bill or have previously voted in favor of it.”

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