Politics & Government

NC Senate bill would make childhood vaccinations mandatory

More children could be vaccinated under a plan proposed in the N.C. Senate.
More children could be vaccinated under a plan proposed in the N.C. Senate. GETTY FILE PHOTO

North Carolina parents could no longer claim a religious exemption to having their children vaccinated against disease under a bill introduced Thursday in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 346 would repeal a law that exempts children from vaccinations if their parents or guardians object for “bona fide religious beliefs.”

“The intent is not to violate religious freedom in any way, shape or form,” Sen. Jeff Tarte said at a news conference. “(But) your rights stop at the point you start impinging on anybody else’s rights.”

Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, is sponsoring the measure with GOP Sen. Tamara Barringer of Cary and Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County.

Sponsors said the bill would bring North Carolina law up to current standards. It would, for example, add vaccinations for polio and influenza B to the list of those required.

The bill comes less than a month after the Senate passed a controversial measure to allow magistrates and other officials with religious objections to decline to perform any marriages. Tarte was the only Republican senator who voted against that bill, which is now in the House. The proposal followed an order from the head of the state’s court system for magistrates to conduct same-sex marriages.

The vaccination bill is likely to spark more debate over the mixture of religious beliefs and public policy.

In North Carolina, children must be immunized before attending public and private schools. Exemptions are allowed for medical or religious reasons. For the 2013-14 school year, 179 children received medical exemptions, and 1,204 got religious exemptions, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Generally, North Carolina has a higher compliance with vaccination rules than some states. Here, 72 percent of children, ages 19 to 35 months, received recommended immunizations in 2013, compared with 70 percent nationally. Nearly 99 percent of North Carolina children received the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine before kindergarten in the 2013-14 school year.

The bill introduced Thursday would bring North Carolina’s vaccination requirements up to standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the bill, children would be screened for immunodeficiency conditions that could qualify them for a medical exemption.

But the bill leaves in what could become a loophole for religious-minded parents who don’t want vaccinations. Tarte said the bill doesn’t cover home schools, an issue he said they’ll want to discuss as the legislation moves forward.

Of the state’s 60,950 registered home schools, 62 percent classify themselves as religious-based.

“This was never intended to be mandated or dictated by two or three people,” Tarte said. “It’s to open a dialogue to set good public health policy. This is the outline and the blueprint for that.”

While all 50 states recognize medical exemptions, just two – Mississippi and West Virginia – don’t exempt on religious grounds.

Buncombe County has seen a higher rate of religious exemptions than anywhere in the state. Officials there have said they fear clusters of unvaccinated people could lead to outbreaks of diseases. Cases of whooping cough already have returned.

“We’re starting to see cases of diseases we thought we had eradicated,” Van Duyn said. “These diseases are not a thing of the past.” (Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer Keung Hui and Charlotte Observer staff writer Karen Garloch contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Related stories from Charlotte Observer