Sen. Jim Tomes has introduced SB 18 which requires schools to send every student’s parent, every year, a notice of the student’s right to not to receive immunizations or related testing if the parent objects on religious grounds or if a physician certifies that such immunizations might be detrimental to the student’s health.
This one is a twofer: an additional burden on schools and a sop to the antivaxxers. The administrative burden is unnecessary. If skipping vaccinations is such a core tenet of your religious belief that you’re willing to put the rest of the community at additional risk to honor those beliefs, you won’t need reminding of your options by the public school system.
At the heart of my complaint is my skepticism about whether we should allow exemptions to vaccinations based on religious objections. There is some risk to the individual from any vaccination. But that risk is outweighed by the benefit to the community and the individual him or herself. However, the calculation potentially changes if everyone else in the community gets vaccinated. If everyone else in the community is vaccinated, the individual can skip the risk to him or herself by not getting vaccinated without a lot of risk of getting sick because everyone else has been vaccinated and won’t be a vector for that particular illness. The individual is protected by the herd immunity of the community. That’s a free-rider problem. It’s not a big deal if there are only a few free riders.
There are cases where a person’s particular medical condition makes their personal risk from vaccination unacceptably high and letting them ride for free on the rest of the community’s immunity is the sensible approach. If there are only a few outliers who are claiming a religious exemption, you can skip them too in order to avoid the emotional turmoil of offending their religious sensibilities. But that only works if their numbers are small. Sen. Tomes is choosing a policy that will inevitably increase those numbers. In addition to hurting the community, this policy will ultimately harm those with the most deeply held religious beliefs on the issue. Because, as more people get sick, the less tenable a religious exemption will be. Once you hit an inflection point, you just say public health concerns don’t permit a religious exemption of any kind. You’d do away with the people using religious concerns as a pretext to enjoy the benefits of a free rider, but you’d also sweep up the very devout few who we’re able to accommodate under the present system.