Major loophole officially closed: NY ends religious exemption to vaccine mandates

June 14, 2019 09:11 AM

NEW YORK, N.Y. (WHEC) --  New York state has closed a loophole Thursday that allows parents to avoid getting a measles shot for their child.

The New York State Legislature voted to remove the religious exemption to the vaccine. Within 20 minutes of it passing the state Senate, Gov. Cuomo signed it into law. 


New York state is in a crisis with the measles. More than 600 confirmed cases this year. More than any other state combined. 

The debate in Albany pitted public safety versus religious freedom.

Assemblyman Phil Steck, a lawyer from Albany who is in favor of the bill said, "Rights give way when there is a compelling government interest." 

The safety of children is the compelling interest. 

Sabrina Pettersson is at her doctor's office in Pittsford so her daughter Maggie can get her measles shot. 

News10NBC Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "Why is getting that immunization for Maggie important to you?"

Sabrina Pettersson, mother of Maggie: "Well, I don't want her to get the diseases it prevents."

But we found that, over a decade, more parents in New York used the religious exemption to avoid the measles shot. 

A map from the Journal of Pediatrics, based on New York State Department of Health data, shows the counties with high rates of religious exemptions in the year 2000 numbered four. 

The data, 10 years later, shows 13 counties with high levels of religious exemptions. 

So for the past month, News10NBC scoured data from the state health department. We wanted to know: what is the percentage of children in local schools with the measles vaccine?

Here's what we found. 

The average vaccination rate for public schools in Monroe County is 99.2 percent. 

Here is the list of school districts and the percentage of vaccination: 
                        2017-18                2012-13

Brighton:                 99.2                     99.5
Brockport:               99                        99.1
CC:                         99.5                     99.8
East Irondequoit:    99.7                     99.5
East Rochester:      98.5                     99.2
Fairport:                  99.1                     99.1
Gates-Chili:            99.6                      99.2
Greece:                  99.4                      99.4
Hilton:                     99                         99.6
HF-L:                      99                         99.4
Penfield:                 99.3                      99.2
Pittsford:                 99.1                      99.4
RCSD:                    99.6                      99.1
RH:                         99.6                      99.7
Spencerport:           98.9                      99.3
Webster:                  98.9                     99.2
West Irondequoit:    99.5                     99.3 
Wheatland-Chili:      99.3                     98.1

Click here to find the vaccination rate of your school.

But then we found 16 private schools in Monroe, Wayne, Ontario, Genesee and Orleans counties that have a vaccination rate below 90 percent, the point at which doctors get concerned about the measles spreading. 

Here is the list: 

Monroe County

School             Measles Vac Rate %      Religious Exemption %        Enrollment

Christian Aca                   82.7                             17.33                                78

Christian Sch                   78.6                             21.43
Christian Aca                    74.2                             25.81                               59

St. John Bosco                  88.4                             9.42                                168

Wayne County

Clyde School                     79.4                             17.65

Gravel Ridge
School                                51.1                             48.94

Rose Valley
Mennonite Sch                    66.7                             33.33

Ontario County

Calvary Chapel
Christian School                  84.4                             12.5

Montessori                           87.5                             0

Lake Country
School                                  43.5                             56.52

School                                  36.7                             60

Sandy Knoll
School                                  31.6                             63.16

Willow Run
School                                  13.3                             83.33

Windy Hill
School                                   57.1                             37.14

Genesee County

St. Paul
Lutheran School                     78.4                             21.62

Orleans County

Orleans County
Christian Sch                            85                            15

One of the schools is Cornerstone Christian Academy in Brockport. According to the state health department, its vaccination rate is 82.7 percent. 

Chris Johnson, principal of Cornerstone Christian Academy: "First of all, I didn't know that percentage until you called and shared that with me because I don't pay really any attention to that."

Chris Johnson is the principal of Cornerstone. Seventeen percent of his students have a religious exemption from the measles vaccine. That equals approximately 14 students. It's a small school. 

Johnson, who was the only principal from the 16 private schools willing to talk to News10NBC for this story, says he follows the state guidelines. 

Johnson: "We've been audited twice. So they just come out and check to make sure they agree with what the parents have stated are legitimate reasons."

The state's religious exemption form is a four-page document.

As long as a parent lists a "sincere religious belief" that "prohibits" the vaccine, a child can be at school without it. Johnson says he encourages vaccinations and believes in them but he also believes in the separation of church and state. 

Johnson: "We have a number of families that have scriptural backing to the things that they believe and the stands they take and I think those should be left alone, unviolated."

News10NBC showed the list of schools with an immunization rate below 90 percent to Doctor Elizabeth Murray, an emergency room pediatrician at Strong Hospital.

Dr. Elizabeth Murray, emergency pediatrician: "These schools, I don't know the sizes. Again, if they're very small it might just take a few children, actual numbers of children, to bring down these levels very low. But again this is putting everyone at risk. We know we need the measles vaccination rates and all vaccination rates to be well up into the '90s."

That's why Dr. Murray used social media posts to pressure state lawmakers into voting out the religious exemption.

Dr. Murray: "Well we know that there are no major religions that are against vaccinations first of all. That all the major religions support it fully. The way the vaccines are created now they have all agreed this is important for the health of our society."

Brean: "After Maggie gets the shot, you're going to feel what?"

Sabrina Pettersson, mother of Maggie: "Relieved."

Pettersson thinks back to the generations that didn't have the medicine. 

Pettersson: "People would lose multiple children in their families to this disease. I think if more people could see back into those times and see maybe what people went through who actually got all these diseases, I think they would be like whoa! Maybe we need to re-think this." 


Berkeley Brean

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