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Atheists: Washington Should End Religious Exemptions for Vaccines

Olympia, Washington—Today, American Atheists, on behalf of its nearly 1,5000 constituents in Washington, submitted testimony to support amending HB 1638. While this bill would repeal personal or philosophical exemptions that prevent children from receiving vaccination, it fails to do so for religious exemptions.

The result would be that Washington parents who previously made a personal or philosophical objection would simply make a religious one.

However, religious exemptions in Washington’s vaccination law are not required by the US Constitution. A number of states, including California, Mississippi, and West Virginia do not allow for these types of religious exemptions.

As the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Prince v. Massachusetts, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death…. Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

“Non-essential exemptions to immunization requirements endanger all children in order to accommodate the religious or philosophical beliefs of a few. Such exemptions are unacceptable from both a public health and moral perspective, since successful population immunity to disease depends upon a significant level of vaccination, as high as 95% for some diseases,” added Gill.

According to the CDC, the opt-out rate for vaccination in Washington for nonmedical reasons in 2017-2018 was 3.9%, which is nearly double the national average of 2.0%. In Clark County the vaccination rate is only 78%, with some schools in the county reporting rates below 40%. Tragically, these lagging vaccination rates are likely responsible for the measles outbreak which prompted Governor Inslee to declare a state of emergency on January 25th of this year. The majority of cases documented were in children under the age of 10.

“Lawmakers have a responsibility to protect all youth, regardless of their religion or lack thereof,” wrote Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy concluded. “No young person should be subject to harm or illness based on the religious beliefs of their caretakers or their classmates.”