On Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill eliminating all non-medical exceptions from the statewide school-entrance vaccine schedule. The vote was not particularly close in either body, but most Jewish institutions, schools, and policymakers – even those that support vaccination – opposed the bill’s passage.
State Senator Simcha Felder said the bill “tamper[s] with religious freedom” and will “set us down a slippery slope.” New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, – who, like Felder, favors vaccination – said in an impassioned floor speech before the vote, “In the United States of America, we do not legislate religious beliefs.”
The assemblyman’s press secretary told The Jewish Press he doesn’t believe a valid Jewish reason exists to use the religious exemption – “this is not about Jewish beliefs” – but said he is concerned with the government proscribing valid religious objections in the future.
Agudath Israel of America, which has taken a proactive stance against anti-vaccination activists in the Orthodox community, said in a statement that it “views with concern” the new bill, warning that it represents an erosion of “the sacrosanct constitutional principle of government aversion toward impinging on free exercise of religion” and “sets a dangerous precedent.”
The Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud Harabbonim likewise voiced reservation about the bill and called on New York officials to “take all necessary steps to prevent this legislation from being used as a weapon against” religious freedom.
Governor Cuomo and proponents of the bill said they respect freedom of religion but called the bill a necessary step to ensure public safety. Michael A. Helfand, a professor of law at Pepperdine University, meanwhile, dismissed religious liberty concerns, saying a slippery slope is not likely to develop due to protections in New York’s state constitution.
The bill’s intent is to avoid further measles outbreaks. Agudath Israel, among others, claims the vaccination rate in Orthodox Jewish schools statewide is above the 95 percent threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to establish herd immunity. The authors of the bill, though, cite New York State data from 2013-2014 finding “at least 285 schools…with an immunization rate below 85%, including 170 schools below 70%, far below the CDC’s goal.”
Dr. Awi Federgruen of Columbia University, whose calculations – made in concert with Dr. Daniel S. Berman of Montefiore Medical Center – are the basis of Agudah’s claim, told The Jewish Press that his research concerns Brooklyn specifically. Orthodox schools statewide are not above the threshold statewide, he said.
A review of public data collected by the New York State Department of Health reveals that while most of the schools with high rates of religious exemption are Christian or non-denominational, some are Orthodox Jewish. Some yeshivos in the Monsey area, for example, have measles immunization rates of 45 percent or less. These schools declined to comment for this story.
In a statement to LoHud, attorney Michael Sussman declared his intention to pursue legal avenues to reinstate the religious exemption. “Along with other attorneys, we are exploring a number of different challenges to the law,” he said. Asked for further detail by The Jewish Press, Sussman responded, “I will pursue a constitutional challenge.”
One of Sussman’s clients, Joseph Hendrick, told News 12 Westchester that he believes G-d doesn’t want him to vaccinate his children and will now homeschool or move out of state if the exemption’s repeal is upheld.
Sussman, who told News 12 that he has received hundreds of complaints about the new law, was previously successful in challenging Rockland County Executive Ed Day’s edict barring unvaccinated children from entering local schools.
Discussion around the bill has focused religious liberty, but some experts are decrying its effectiveness as well. Dr. Federgruen, for one, worries vaccine-skeptical parents will have no difficulty acquiring fraudulent medical exemptions instead of religious exemptions. He told The Jewish Press, “The law does not accomplish anything significant and is a cheap way for politicians to score points with the public.”
As the final vote tally became clear in the State Senate last week, expletives and outraged shouts rang out from Orthodox Jews watching from the chamber’s gallery., Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, rosh yeshiva of Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, condemned their reaction in a public letter on Tuesday.
“The language used and the gestures performed by these individuals was disgraceful and shameful,” he wrote. “No matter what their position is on the issue at hand, there is never justification for such conduct in any forum, let alone in the State Capitol in public view.”