ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers are poised Thursday to eliminate a religious exemption to vaccine requirements in the face of its worst measles outbreak in decades.
The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly planned to vote on repealing the exemption, which allows parents of children to cite their religious beliefs to opt a child out of the vaccines required for public school enrollment.
Similar exemptions are allowed in 46 states, though lawmakers in several states are also considering the elimination of the waiver.
"We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis," said Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan and the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. "The atrocious peddlers of junk science and fraudulent medicine who we know as anti-vaxxers have spent years sowing unwarranted doubt and fear, but it is time for legislators to confront them head on."
Hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children gathered at New York's Capitol before the vote to protest what several called an assault on religious freedom .
"People came to this country to get away from exactly this kind of stuff," said Stan Yung, a Long Island attorney who has three children.
Yung, who is Russian Orthodox, said he has religious views and health concerns that will prevent him from vaccinating his three young children. His family, he said, may consider leaving the state if the bill is signed into law.
Supporters of the bill say religious beliefs about vaccines shouldn't trump scientific evidence that they work and note that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the right to enforce compulsory vaccination laws.
Supporters also suggest some parents may be claiming the religious exemption for their children even though their opposition is actually based on misguided claims about scientifically discredited dangers of vaccines.
The bill would not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, supports eliminating the exemption, saying public health is at risk. He could sign the bill as soon as it passes Thursday.
"I understand freedom of religion," he told reporters Wednesday. "I have heard the anti-vaxxers' theory, but I believe both are overwhelmed by the public health risk."
Federal health officials said last week that this year's U.S. measles epidemic has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years. The majority of cases are from outbreaks in New York in Orthodox Jewish communities.
The nation last saw this many cases in 1992, when more than 2,200 were reported.
Once common in the U.S., measles became rare after vaccination campaigns that started in the 1960s. A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 cases a year.