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Religious vax exemption rule temporarily blocked by lawmakers

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News from Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

HELENA — The legislative committee that oversees the state health department voted Friday to delay implementation of the agency’s proposed rule expanding religious exemptions to required vaccines at childcare and daycare centers.

The 9-1 vote took place near the end of the bipartisan Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee’s final meeting before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Helena in January for the 2023 legislative session. The committee opted to “informally object” to the Department of Public Health and Human Services rule, a tactic that delays adoption of a rule for roughly six months after it is first proposed. The attorney for the committee said the objection would last until mid to late January. The health department proposed the rule on Aug. 5. 

On Thursday, the day before the committee’s meeting, opponents of the rule testified at a public hearing that the loosening of religious exemption standards would undermine the safety of young children who have not completed standard immunization schedules for measles, diphtheria, polio and other diseases. 

Additionally, the rule would remove vaccination requirements for staff and volunteers at childcare centers, a provision medical professionals also said posed “an incredible health risk” to babies and children in childcare settings.

During the public hearing on Thursday, the department’s representative said the rule was drafted to make childcare centers compliant with Senate Bill 215, a law signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last year called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The staff member also said the department believed the proposed rollback of vaccine requirements for staff would help ease the workforce shortage at childcare facilities.

Republicans and Democrats on the interim committee who voted to object to the proposed rule listed a variety of concerns. Representative and committee chair Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said the broad language of the proposed religious exemption included “essentially no accountability” for verifying a person’s beliefs or motivation for seeking an exemption.

“So anybody could say, ‘My religion is I don’t like vaccines,’ and exempt their kids,” Stafman said, voicing concern about the resurgence of measles and polio in some parts of the country where vaccine uptake has faltered. “This whole process is just a way for people to avoid vaccines and create public health problems.”

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, said he was concerned about how the rule’s terms might inadvertently impact smaller daycare groups that aren’t operating as licensed childcare centers, effectively increasing government red tape for Montanans. 

“I think this is one more thing that does move the needle to ‘more complicated,’” Lenz said. “It sounds like grandma would have a lot more paperwork.”

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, also voted to object to the rule because of its vague terminology and her concern that the measure would make vaccine exemptions more difficult for some childcare providers and participants to navigate. But Carlson, who sponsored a bill last year that widely prohibits discrimination in Montana on the basis of vaccination status, pointedly disagreed with Stafman’s comments about religious exemptions. 

“I’m really getting a little bit tired of the argument … that your religious beliefs depend on what someone else said or what a church believes,” Carlson said. “I hope that someday in this country we can get to the point where we don’t believe it’s our job to adjudicate someone else’s religious belief.”

The committee’s lone vote in opposition to the objection was from Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena. In a Monday phone call, Caferro said she didn’t see the committee’s “informal objection” as being particularly forceful when compared to the option for a “formal objection,” which would delay implementation of the rule until after the next legislative session and involve more interaction with the department to find potential solutions. 

In a Monday statement, spokesperson Chuck Council said the health department is “disappointed” by the interim committee’s objection. He said the vote interrupts the agency’s attempt to “streamline the hiring process” for childcare providers across Montana and to pass a rule that complies with the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“It is well-recognized that a childcare shortage exists in Montana, and this shortage continues to negatively affect parents’ ability to rejoin the workforce,” Council said. “The interim committee’s vote, which occurred in the midst of the Department’s review of public comment and feedback, arbitrarily halted efforts to expand child care capacity and choice.”

Council added that the health department is concerned about how the committee’s objection might preclude it from “revising rules to comply with the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and said the health agency will be considering its rule-making options going forward to “mitigate any legal risk.”

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