Victory! California Governor Signs Bill to End “Personal Belief” Vaccine Exemptions

After an acrimonious 4-month battle in California between doctors, public health advocates, epidemiologists, historians, and the celebrity-speckled anti-vaccine fringe, sound medical science has finally won the day. Earlier this afternoon Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 277, which ends “personal belief” vaccination exemptions—religious or otherwise—for children attending public or private schools in California.

Activists, including those of us at the Center for Inquiry, had been growing uneasy as the bill inched closer to Brown’s desk. In 2012, the governor used his executive power to insert a religious exemption into a similar bill, Assembly Bill 2109, which required Californians to consult with a physician before receiving a “personal belief” exemption. The signing statement decree was a last-minute retreat that critically weakened the bill. And until today, Brown had remained coy on SB 277.

To the relief of SB 277 supporters, in this signing statement Brown settled for pointing out the simple fact that vaccination saves lives and protects everyone from needless suffering, especially the most vulnerable:

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases. While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

By no means is SB 277 perfect. As it weaved its way through the state legislature, two frustrating amendments were added to the bill. The first set vaccination “checkpoints” at kindergarten and 7th grade. Although it ensures that all new students are vaccinated beginning in 2016, this structure allows unvaccinated students already in the school system at that time to remain enrolled until they reach 7th grade, at which point they must be vaccinated or switch to homeschooling. Unvaccinated students already in the 8th grade or later can continue in the district, unvaccinated, until graduation from high school. If an unvaccinated student changes school districts, however, they must be vaccinated before attending their new school.

The second, more consequential amendment limits SB 277 to only barring belief exemptions for the 10 vaccines currently required in California. Almost certainly related to religious and secular fear-mongering about Gardasil and Cervarix—HPV vaccines, increasingly required nationwide, that protect against cervical and other cancers—the amendment allows parents and individuals to claim a philosophical exemption from any vaccines introduced and required in the future.

Regardless, SB 277’s passage marks a tremendous and overdue victory for public health and vaccination. It also comes in the nation’s most populous state, which now joins Mississippi and West Virginia as the only 3 states to ban belief exemptions. This victory also stands as a powerful repudiation of the paranoid, privileged, anti-scientific, ahistorical, and inhumane anti-vaccine fringe, from its ideology to its idols—and in one of the movement’s strongest bastions.

As lawmakers, doctors, and public health advocates take up the fight in new states nationwide, they could do far worse than to model themselves on the tenacious California activists—including Vaccinate California, the California Immunization Coalition, the California Medical Association, and others—and their vindicated campaign to protect both sound medical science and the most vulnerable citizens among them.