New Mexico removes fake religious objections from vaccine exemptions

As I discussed previously, the pendulum is swinging against the so-called “philosophical exemption” against vaccination, which allows parents to not vaccinate their children based on the “just because I don’t want to” principle. They don’t even have to support their exemption with a discussion with a healthcare worker who might explain the risks of their decision.

According to an article in the Las Cruces Sun-News, New Mexico state law says that residents can exempt their children from immunization for two reasons: 1) medical issues that might make the vaccination unsafe (often called medical exemptions) or 2) vaccinations conflict with the family’s religious beliefs (religious exemptions). Apparently, according to the article, “the New Mexico Department of Health wants to keep it that way.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Health modified the vaccine exemption form (pdf) to prevent “philosophical objections” being used as an option. “We believe people were using the philosophical objections when filling out the form,” stated NM Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil. “We became concerned that vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise because of that. The new form specifically requires you to state your religious belief.”

The NM Department of Health stated that exemption rates in 2003 were about 3.2 percent when 1,799 of the incoming kindergartners subject to vaccine requirements requested exemptions. In 2011, the rate was around 5.8 percent when 3,372 children of immunization age received exemptions.

Again, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News,

In recent years, some parents opted out of the standard immunizations, generally required for admittance to daycare and school, in part because of a bogus study linking a vaccination to autism. That study has been repeatedly debunked — related court cases surrounding that decision have been upheld by U.S. courts — and the head researcher in the study lost his license.

(Note: Not sure why, but the Las Cruces Sun-News seemed reluctant to mention Mr. Andrew Wakefield by name in the article. I’m not. Wakefield wrote the bogus study. And Wakefield lost his license. So there, Las Cruces Sun-News, I did your job for you.)

The old version of the vaccination exemption form required parents to affirm that they held religious beliefs that didn’t allow them to have their children vaccinated, but it didn’t ask them to state exactly what that religion was, or the nature of those beliefs. In other words, the parents could just invent something. The new form asks specifically the nature of their beliefs, and it is reviewed by the Department of Health. 

Apparently, not only parents thought New Mexico allowed these types of exemptions, but so do a lot of anti-vaccination websites based on what is published on the School Immunization Exemption State Laws website. It states that New Mexico allows philosophical exemptions, but does qualify it by stating that “The New Mexico Department of Health interprets the state’s exemption based on individual or jointly held religious beliefs as a philosophical exemption.” The New Mexico Department of Health has now closed that loophole by preventing misinterpretation of law, intentionally or otherwise. 

Just for your information, here is the letter of the New Mexico law:

Exemption from immunization.

A. Any minor child through his parent or guardian may file with the health authority charged with the duty of enforcing the immunization laws:

(1) a certificate of a duly licensed physician stating that the physical condition of the child is such that immunization would seriously endanger the life or health of the child; or

(2) affidavits or written affirmation from an officer of a recognized religious denomination that such child’s parents or guardians are bona fide members of a denomination whose religious teaching requires reliance upon prayer or spiritual means alone for healing; or

(3) affidavits or written affirmation from his parent or legal guardian that his religious beliefs, held either individually or jointly with others, do not permit the administration of vaccine or other immunizing agent.

B. Upon filing and approval of such certificate, affidavits or affirmation, the child is exempt from the legal requirement of immunization for a period not to exceed nine months on the basis of any one certificate, affidavits or affirmation.

So what has New Mexico done here? It tightened up a law that was already on the books, and anyone requesting an exemption must actually prove that they are observing a religion that has some anti-vaccination belief. There really aren’t many mainstream religions that are opposed to vaccinations, so obviously many who abused this exemption in the past were probably inventing religion to claim a “philosophical exemption,” meaning they didn’t like vaccinations, but were taking advantage of the religious exemption to get what they wanted

I still remain strongly opposed to the religious exemption, because it has no place in this discussion. Public schools should not be required to make decisions about students involving religion, whether it’s prayers, teaching creationism, or whether someone’s religious belief (fake or otherwise) means they can send their unvaccinated children to a taxpayer supported school.

Public schools, as a state-supported entity, should remain blind to religion. Per the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, religion has no place in any government discussion; should we allow a Department of Health bureaucrat to determine the validity of a religious practice? Of course not. Therefore, no religious exemption should be allowed, and those individuals who wish to practice some religion that outrageously believes that the gift of vaccinations, which prevents deadly diseases, is somehow against their religion, can send their kids to a private school or home-school. 

And as I mentioned recently, the rise in religious exemptions has lead to a concomitant increase in the pertussis infection rate in New York state. I would like to know what religion would ever put children at intentional risk of harm. Oh, wait.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!