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House advances bill to allow religious exemptions for school-mandated vaccines 

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House advances bill to allow religious exemptions for school-mandated vaccines 

Feb 26, 2024 | 4:08 pm ET
By Lori Kersey
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House advances bill to allow religious exemptions for school-mandated vaccines聽
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Del. Laura Kimble, R-Harrison, speaks Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in favor of House Bill 5105, which would allow religious exemptions for school-mandated vaccines. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

The West Virginia House of Delegates on Monday advanced legislation that would allow students to be exempted from school-mandated vaccines for religious reasons.

Delegates passed House Bill 5105 with a 57 to 41 vote after more than an hour and a half of debate.

As introduced, the bill would have allowed an exemption to school-mandated vaccines for kids attending public virtual schools. The House Health Committee amended it to require virtual school students participating in activities sponsored by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission to still be required to be vaccinated. 

In the House judiciary committee, the bill was amended to allow private and parochial schools to decide for themselves whether to impose vaccine requirements, except that students who participate in WVSSAC activities would still be required to have the vaccines. 

Delegates on Friday voted to accept an amendment proposed by Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, that would allow parents or guardians to present a letter stating that their child cannot be vaccinated for religious reasons and the exemption would be granted.

All states require school children to be vaccinated against a series of infectious diseases. West Virginia is one of only five states nationwide that do not allow religious or philosophical exemptions for school-mandated vaccines. The state allows only medical exemptions for vaccine requirements. 

Health officials have long touted the state’s strong immunization laws as the reason for the state’s high rates of vaccination in school-age children and, in recent years, for why it hasn’t had measles outbreaks that have become more common in other states. 

West Virginia has not had a documented case of measles, a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease, since 2009. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of last week, 35 measles cases had been reported in 15 states, including four of the states surrounding West Virginia: Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania. 

Supporters of the bill have largely argued that vaccine mandates violate religious freedom rights. 

Del. Laura Kimble, R-Harrison, who sponsored the original bill exempting virtual school students, said she supports the amended version of the bill. She said she “couldn’t believe it” when she found out that West Virginia does not allow religious exemptions to vaccines. 

“We live in West Virginia, we live in the United States of America,” Kimble said in a lengthy floor speech. “We have rights. We have the constitution. We acknowledge that we’re guaranteed the right to religious liberty. Yet, our West Virginia government is attempting to infringe on this right. I am not anti-vaccine. I do believe, however, that the role of the government is not to give a false sense of security, it is to defend and protect individual rights.”

Del. Eric Brooks, R- Raleigh, said the debate over the bill comes down to the question of what religious freedom means. For some constituents, he argued, vaccination is something they will not do because it violates their religious freedom. 

“It really doesn’t matter how grievous you think this is, this issue about religious freedom as far as vaccinations go,” Brooks said. “That is a personal matter for some of them, and I told people I was going to protect religious freedom.”

Those who opposed the bill argued for balancing personal freedom with the good of the community. 

Speaking against the legislation Del. John Williams, D-Monongalia, said the issue of vaccines is personal for him because his grandfather had polio, a vaccine preventable disease, as a child, causing him to walk with a cane throughout his time as a West Virginia University professor.

“It was a life-defining thing for him, and I can’t imagine bringing that back,” Williams said. “And eventually my son could have the same life his great-grandfather had from a disease that, well, we thought we had eradicated.” 

Williams added that he respects anyone’s desire to have religious freedom, but delegates should also consider how exercising them affects someone else. 

“When you talk about the first amendment, religious freedom, I like to also think back to something that was said by our founders, though not codified, not made law in our constitution, when they said that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Williams said. “When you pass bills like this, that the… scientific opinion says will hurt herd immunity, will make it so that more people will get measles, polio and other diseases, that is certainly coming in on someone else’s right to exercise the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Referencing a quote commonly attributed to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said “‘My right to swing my fist ends where another’s nose begins.’ We do not have the right to harm others. This bill does harm. Do no harm. Vote against it. 

Dr. Steven Eshenaur, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, on Friday decried the House’s amendments to the bill that would allow religious exemptions. In a statement Friday, Eshenaur called on the Legislature to preserve the state’s strong childhood immunization.

“We owe it to our children to keep our schools safe and free of these diseases,” he said, in part. “In the name of Democracy, keep disease out of our schools and protect our children. Personal freedom ends when our actions injure others; that is why we have drunk driving laws, criminal laws, child safety seat laws, etc. 

“If you are anti-vaccination, you are pro-disease,” Eshenaur said. “It’s as simple as that. If you are anti-vaccination, you want to weaken or eliminate laws that protect all of our children. There is no other way to see it.”

He called on West Virginians to tell their legislators not to join “Politicians for Polio.” 

“It escapes sound reasoning why anyone would want to weaken childhood immunization laws,” Eshenaur said. “Our children are more important than any agenda that would bring these horrific diseases back to the Mountain State.”

The bill will next go to the Senate for consideration.