March 7, 2015

Changes to vaccine exemption tabled in committee


A bill that would limit exemptions for vaccinations stalled in a House committee on Saturday morning.

The House Health Committee tabled HB 522 on a 5 to 4 party-line vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, would change the religious exemption for vaccinations.

The changes would eliminate wording that allows an individual to personally sign an affidavit stating their religious objections to vaccinations. Instead, the affidavit would be required from “an officer of a recognized religious denomination” stating that a child’s parents “religious teaching requires reliance upon prayer or spiritual means alone for healing.”

Little girl getting a flu shot

Armstrong began her testimony by telling the committee that her bill may have some portions that violate the constitution.

Armstrong spoke with New Mexico Political Report after the committee meeting and said she does not believe her bill inherently violates the constitution, but that some of the wording too narrowly focuses on specific religious beliefs.

“It is constitutional for the state to directly require immunizations even over the objection of religion. What might not be constitutional in this is that it’s not inclusive. It’s discriminatory among religions,” Armstrong said. “It’s not because of the constitutional right of freedom of religion.”

The committee room was packed full audience members, with the majority in opposition of the bill. Many people spoke out against vaccinations and why they might not be safe. Others spoke about religious freedom and why, they said, the bill would limit those freedoms.

Siri Vias Khalsa, a Sikh minister, was in the audience with his son Partap. He told the committee that he opposed the bill on the grounds that it would limit his religious freedom. Later, he told New Mexico Political Report that Sikhism is rooted in a long history of defending personal and religious beliefs.

“Our history is very strong with actually going to war to defend people being persecuted of other religions,” Khalsa said. “It’s not our beliefs, but we believe even stronger that they should be allowed to have those beliefs.”

He added that Sikhism does not specifically mention vaccines in a scriptures, but that the religion’s ideals may prohibit them.

“Vaccinations were not around when our scriptures were written, so there is nothing specifically against vaccinations,” he said. “There’s a lot of substances we don’t put in our body so we can have a pure body and pure consciousness.”

Republican committee members expressed concern with Armstrong that her bill would infringe on a person’s right to choose. Committee Chair Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces acknowledged that the bill may be oppressive but that vaccines are important to the public as a whole.

“The reason we don’t see these diseases is because of systematic vaccinations,” McMillan said, referring to smallpox and polio.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, seemed less concerned about the personal freedoms, but stressed that vaccines are an important part of public health.

“I remember when we didn’t have a lot of these [vaccines]. Chasey said. “The results were devastating.

The state Department of Health has warned about the rise in cases of measles and the rise in children who are not being vaccinated.

Armstrong told the committee that she decided not to change the bill so the public could see and comment on the original bill. She also said she would be willing to work with the committee in order to tighten up the language.

Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro, told the sponsor and the committee that there is always a chance the committee will revisit the bill before the session is over.

Armstrong told New Mexico Political Report that she plans on working with other members in order to broaden the religious exemption in the legislation.