AUGUSTA, Maine — That controversial plan for tougher rules on vaccinations is expected to face more votes in the Legislature next week. But the debate has become more complicated, after the Maine Senate voted Thursday to keep allowing the religious exemption to vaccines.
That vote in the Senate surprised some people and has raised more questions about what happens next. The House already voted down a similar religious exemption amendment two weeks ago. Now, it will have to decide whether to accept the plan from the Senate or try to force the upper chamber to get rid of the religious exemption.
Education officials say the current procedure for religious exemptions is simple and that parents usually just check a box on a form.
Carroll Conley of the Christian Civic League of Maine says he hasn’t heard of any formal religious objections to vaccines among major denominations. Instead, Conley said he thinks some individual parents choose to see their opposition to vaccine in a religious context.
"I think what I heard was a principle that if children and life in general is a gift from God, and therefore they are stewards with those children and are under the impression the children are being exposed to harm against their will, then that’s the religious aspect of it,” Conley told NEWS CENTER Maine.
He said there may also be some who support keeping the exemption, simply as an expression of religious freedom.
Conley believes the religious exemption has been rarely used. However, Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth), chair of the Education Committee that supported the vaccine bill, and who opposed the last-minute religious amendment, said she thinks it will become far more popular if the current version of the bill passes.
"There is a reason that amendment was introduced. I think folks see it as a way to continue to be exempted from vaccinations," Millett said.
Conley said he has heard from some advocates that there may be an effort to pass another amendment to put tighter requirements on religious exemptions. He said one proposal being floated went too far, calling for parents to certify their religious belief through a notarized document.
Conley said he had already talked to former judges and the ACLU about that prospect.
"And to me, that should not be a partisan issue. It should be those of us who believe in freedom and parental rights -- we hope that raises some red flags.”
Sen. Millett said she was not aware of a formal proposal but said such an approach "makes me highly uncomfortable."
"I know when we talked about it in our caucus, a number of us didn’t want to put people in the position of having to certify their religion. That’s very concerning to me," Millett said.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Ryan Tipping (D-Orono), said some ideas about the religious exemption "are bouncing around", but said he was not aware of any formal proposal from a legislator.
The House could take up the vaccine bill again Tuesday.