West Virginia House passes bill to allow religious exemptions for student vaccine mandate

Girl receiving a vaccine for COVID-19
Girl receiving a vaccine for COVID-19 | Getty Images

West Virginia is one step closer to passing a law that would allow parents to exempt their children from getting certain vaccines on the basis of religious objection and still attend public schools.   

On Monday, the Republican-controlled West Virginia House of Delegates voted 57-41 to support House Bill 5105, which would amend state law regulating mandatory vaccination for students. Thirty-one Republicans sided with Democrats to oppose the measure, while all of the votes in support of its passage came from Republicans. 

The proposed legislation exempts students attending virtual schools from vaccine requirements and allows parents to opt their child out of vaccination for religious reasons.

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“Notwithstanding any other provisions in this code, no provision of this section shall apply to any child whose parents or guardians present a letter stating that a child cannot be vaccinated for religious reasons and an exemption from the requirements of this section shall be granted,” states the bill.

The bill will next go to the Republican-controlled West Virginia Senate, which has until March 9 to vote on the legislation, though the chances of it passing remain uncertain, reports The Associated Press.

Critics of the bill, including Dr. Steven Eshenaur of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, have argued that HB 5105 will lead to worse health outcomes for West Virginians.

“Legislators want to turn the clock back nearly 100 years and remove some of the safeguards in our vaccination policies,” said Eshenaur.

“It escapes sound reasoning why anyone would want to weaken childhood immunization laws. Our children are more important than any agenda that would bring these horrific diseases back to the Mountain State.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, West Virginia is one of five states that does not include a religious or conscience-based exemption to school vaccination requirements. The others are California, Connecticut, Maine and New York.

Del. Chris Pritt, a sponsor of the legislation, defended the bill on social media. Pritt tweeted on Wednesday that the bill seeks to protect parental rights and personal freedom.

“WV is at the bottom with medical freedom,” he said. “Mountaineers will never be free until families are able to make decisions on whether to vaccinate.”

In April 2023, U.S. District Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden ordered Mississippi to allow parents who opposed vaccines for religious reasons to be exempted from the requirement that they vaccinate their children in order to send them to school.

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by parents who challenged New York's repeal of religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates, letting a lower court decision stand that concluded that the parents' arguments lacked merit.

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