Vermont Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) plans to introduce a bill next week that would prevent parents from opting their children out of mandatory school vaccinations for purely religious reasons, setting the stage for yet another showdown over public health and civil liberties — only this time, in the middle of a pandemic.
Till, a practicing physician, told Seven Days on Friday that he found it "disturbing" to see how many people "suddenly found religion" after Vermont became the first state in the nation to remove its "philosophical exemption" five years ago, a move he strongly supported.
A study published in late 2019 found that while the number of Vermont kindergarteners who avoided vaccinations for non-medical reasons dropped from 5.7 percent to 3.7 percent in the two years after the policy change, the rate of religious exemption claims jumped from 0.5 percent to 3.7 percent.
"The truth of it is that there are very few religions that actually have an objection to [vaccines]," Till said. "People were really, truthfully just misusing the religious exemption."
More than a dozen states have revoked personal belief-based vaccination exemptions, while religious ones have been nixed by five: California, Mississippi, Maine, West Virginia and New York, which experienced a widely-publicized measles outbreak in 2019.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, vaccine skeptics in Vermont had been sounding alarms about the potential revocation of the religious exemption. Organizers behind the late 2019 showing of a prominent anti-vaccination film in Burlington encouraged attendees to lobby their legislators on the issue, and some expressed fear of further requirements.
“They’re not only coming for our children. They’re going to come for all of us,” one man said after the movie showing. “They want to hook it to your credit, they want to hook it to your ability to travel … you need to realize this and we all need to fight.”
While some major American school districts are planning to require that students receive the COVID-19 immunization shots before they can return to class, Vermont Department of Health spokesperson Ben Truman wrote in an email on Friday that there have been "no discussions or plans for mandating vaccination for COVID-19” at the state level.
Till stressed that his bill does not call for additions to the list of required shots, nor was it proposed in anticipation of the COVID-19 vaccination being added. And he said it would be "premature" for him to opine whether the state should add the vaccine to the required list given the limited supply.
Vermont will begin the second phase of its vaccination rollout next week, starting with elderly populations before turning to people with chronic health conditions. State officials say it will likely take a couple months before the state can get through the state's roughly 125,000 older and medically vulnerable residents.
Don Tinney, president of the Vermont NEA, the state teacher's union, said he could not weigh in on Till's bill before seeing its language. But he said the potential removal of the religious exemption was an "important discussion to have."
Till has heard from other legislators interested in signing onto the bill but said he was still shopping around for co-sponsors. It is unclear how well the bill will fare; a 2019 version proposed by Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington) went nowhere, and legislative leaders may be even more reluctant to take up the bill during a session dedicated to COVID recovery efforts.
Still, Till said he believes the pandemic has opened a window of opportunity by reminding younger generations of just how important vaccinations can be.
"Getting rid of the philosophical exemption was a huge split based on age," he said, noting older legislators could still recall a time before the polio and measles vaccinations were ubiquitous. "But the younger folks had no idea. The difference now is: Who doesn’t know somebody who’s been affected by COVID — or even died from COVID? Maybe it’s a little more real to them."