A number of you reached out to me this morning concerned about a new vaccine mandate for children going back to school in MA. This issue intersects with important questions of parental rights and religious liberty, so I am sharing with you what I’ve learned so far.
WHO: The new flu vaccine mandate applies to all public and private school students, pre-K through college, in Massachusetts even if they are only ‘going’ to school remotely right now. It does NOT apply to homeschool students unless they need to enter a school building for participation in extra curriculars or sports.
- There IS a religious exemption, BUT it only applies “In the absence of an emergency or epidemic of disease declared by the department of public health…” !
- The complete language for the religious exemption is: “In the absence of an emergency or epidemic of disease declared by the department of public health, no student who states in writing that such immunization would conflict with his religious beliefs shall be required to present such medical certificate in order to be admitted to such institution.”
- I haven’t heard of any examples yet of parents being denied the right to make a religious exemption based on the COIVD-19 pandemic, but given that we’re just starting the new school year, we may have simply not hit that problem yet. Please contact me directly if you have been denied a religious exemption.
- There does not appear to be any required format for the written religious exemption statement. The relevant section of the Mass.gov website simply says “Religious exemptions come from the parent/guardian, and state in writing that a vaccine conflicts with his/her sincerely held religious belief.”
WHAT: One dose of seasonal influenza vaccine for the current flu season (July-June).
WHEN: “Influenza vaccine is now a required vaccine for school attendance and will be required as of December 31 for all students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 each school year.”
HOW: No new law was passed that created this new mandate. Rather, the existing law allows for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to simply update the list of mandatory vaccines on their own. That law lists the original required vaccines and then ends with “and such other communicable diseases as may be specified from time to time by the department of public health.” That’s what happened yesterday – the MA Dept. of Public Health specified the flu vaccine as now mandatory. In light of current circumstances, this seems like a great deal of power for a state bureaucracy to wield, but that power is not new.
Finally, it is worth noting that there were several bills this session that would have either eliminated or amended the existing religious exemption for vaccines in MA law. They met a lot of resistance, and all but one of them died in committee. The status of the remaining bill is unclear, given the relatively unprecedented extension of the legislative session this year due to COVID-19. This issue could easily be brought back up on Beacon Hill later this year or in a new session next spring, and the legislature could eliminate the religious exemption altogether.
We will keep you posted as we learn more.