Montana Public Radio

Citing Religious Freedom, Montana Lawmakers Look To Ease Vaccination Rules

Feb 25, 2019

State lawmakers took up several bills dealing with vaccinations against preventable diseases Monday. The bills would expand immunization exemptions in daycares and foster homes in Montana.

The same day, a fifth suspected case of measles was reported in Oregon, related to an outbreak of dozens of measles cases in Washington state.

"This is discrimination," says Theresa Manzella, a Republican from Hamilton.

Manzella is carrying House Bill 575 to change immunization rules for daycares.  

Rep. Theresa Manzella (R) - HD85
Credit Freddy Monares / UM Legislative News Service

Unlike in K-12 schools, where parents can opt out of immunizing their kids for medical or religious reasons, in daycares exemptions for most vaccines are only allowed for medical reasons.

While supporters of the bill say this steps on their religious freedom, public and private health officials say current rules are important to keep kids safe from communicable and potentially deadly diseases. 

Jim Murphy, the communicable disease control bureau chief for the state health department, says House Bill 575 would do more than just create a religious exemption for immunization in daycares.

"This effectively eliminates all the daycare requirements in these settings, which would make us the only state in the United States that would not have any requirements in this setting."

The state health department also does not give religious exemptions from immunization in most situations for the biological children of parents who have taken in a foster child.

Rep. Manzella’s, House Bill 574 would change that, by preventing the state health department from enforcing any immunization requirements not expressly authorized by the Legislature.

Murphy, with DPHHS, says the current policy is in place to protect the health of kids under state oversight in foster care.

Percentage of public and private school students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade with a medical exemption to required vaccines, Montana 2017–2018 academic year.
Credit Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

"The outright elimination of these requirements will place an already vulnerable child at greater risk."

He says Montana already falls several percentage points behind most other states in the country in immunization rates among children.

"So we don’t need to lessen our requirements, we actually need to enforce the ones that we have and educate the populations we work with."

According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 3.3 percent of students statewide enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade receive religious exemptions to the list of required vaccinations.

Rep. Manzella says it’s important for the Legislature to make sure this religious exemption is more broadly applied for patients that don’t want to vaccinate their kids for religious reasons.

"It is time that we, as their representatives, stood up for their individual, God-given rights."

Rep. Theresa Manzella’s home county of Ravalli ranked number 1 in the state for children with religious exemptions to require vaccines during 2017-2018 school year, at nearly 12 percent.

According to DPHHS, Lincoln county, at nearly 11 percent, and Sanders county at almost 8 percent rank the next highest.

The state health department says school vaccination requirements are, "important for maintaining high levels of immunization and reducing the occurrence of vaccine preventable diseases among school aged children."

Lawmakers heard several other bills Monday seeking changes in laws related to the vaccination of kids and young adults.

House Bill 564, carried by Republican Rep. David Dunn from Kalispell, would allow additional health care providers, including physician assistants or advanced practice nurses in Montana, to sign off on medical exemptions for vaccinations.

House Bill 541, carried by Democrat Kathy Kelker, would require colleges and universities with dorms to provide students 16 to 26 years old information about vaccines, including recommendations  from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, vaccination is highly effective, and vaccines are tested to ensure that they are safe.

More info: Montana Immunization Program, 2017-2018 School Immunization Assessment Results