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  • Maine Democrats Miramant and Herbig give in to religious exemptions for vaccinations

    Miramant & Herbig Join Republicans to Keep Vaccination Exemption

    BY Andy O’Brien is communications director at Maine AFL-CIO. He is a former managing editor of The Free Press and a former state legislator.

    The Maine Senate voted the frist week in May to repeal philosophical exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for school-age children. However, Sens. Dave Miramant (D-Knox County) and Erin Herbig (D-Waldo County) joined Republicans in voting 18-17 to keep the religious exemption, putting the fate of the bill with both exemptions in jeopardy. The Maine House voted on largely party lines to keep both exemptions in the bill and reject the Senate amendments, so if the two chambers can’t agree on the final language of LD 798, the bill will die between the bodies. Reps. Bill Pluecker (U-Warren), Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston) and MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) were the only local House members in attendance to vote against the bill.

    Sen. Miramant, who proposed the amendment to preserve the religious exemption, holds the belief that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism, even though numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have debunked these claims. But in his floor speech in support of his amendment, he said the proposal was about religious freedom.

    “If you have a strong religious belief, this country has accepted that and we need to continue to allow that acceptance in all areas, especially where there’s no proof that this is causing harm to our state,” said Miramant.

    Opponents of Miramant’s amendment pointed out that there is no canonical basis for refusing vaccines among the world’s major religions, as they were established centuries before the smallpox vaccine was even invented. Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland County) noted that, out of the hundreds of comments her committee received during the 13-hour hearing on LD 798, only two addressed the religious exemption. She called the amendment a “Trojan horse” for people to opt their children out of vaccines for personal reasons, noting that the number of religious opt- outs in Vermont more than quadrupled after it eliminated its philosophical exemption in 2015. Currently, 90 percent of people who opt out of vaccines in Maine use the philosophic exemption.

    On Tuesday, activist Mike Tipping published a piece in the Maine Beacon that included several screen shots from an anti-vaccination Facebook group called Maine Coalition for Vaccine Choice where parents were celebrating the vote and discussing how easy it will be to exploit the religious exemption loophole. Finally, one member told the others to knock it off.

    “I’ve seen numerous posts about people now becoming religious and how to get the [religious exemption]. Totally fine to say here but I agree — people need to stay off of social media!” the member wrote. “Anyone can screen shot and send to reps and senators. Let’s not ruin this.”

    The bill came in response to several outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and pertussis across the country. At 5.3 percent, Maine’s vaccine opt-out rate is more than double the national average, which is above the rate needed to retain the “herd immunity” standard, according to the CDC. In 2018, Maine had the highest rate of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the country. Waldo County had the highest vaccine opt-out rates in the state as well as the highest rate of pertussis.