Some Vermonters may get religion as vaccine outs narrow

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Parents in America's least devout state may be forced to find religion if they want to exempt their kids from getting vaccinated.

Vermont earlier this year became the first state to remove a philosophical exemption allowing parents to skip the immunizations required to enroll in school but keep the religious exemption in place.

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And while some states require evidence — a statement of religious beliefs, for instance — to support the claim that a child should be exempt for religious reasons, Vermont requires only checking a box on a form next to the word "religious."

"The vast majority who used the philosophical exemption are planning to or are being forced to use the religious exemption," said Jennifer Stella, president of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice.

Vermont, which historically has had one of the country's lowest rates of students fully compliant with the recommended vaccination schedule, is the first state to preserve the religious exemption while doing away with the philosophical one, according to research complied by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Vaccine Information Center. Earlier this summer, California joined West Virginia and Mississippi as the only states without any personal belief exemption.

Because Vermont is first down this particular path, there's no answer to the question of whether states see a new-found interest in religion upon removing the philosophical exemption. But Shawn Venner and Aedan Scribner, who are raising their 8-month-old daughter, Zelda, in Cabot, said the issue may spark a revival.

"I grew up here in Cabot, and would love my daughter to be able to go to the same school I did," said Scribner. "But to get her into that school I'm going to have to do something like convert religiously."

The couple said they are not opposed to all vaccines for their daughter, but strongly support choice in the matter.

There's been talk among friends of starting a new religion, Venner said, "a religion that says we'll pretty much have a choice."

As it stands now, Vermont is something other than a hotbed of religious fervor. A study released in May by the Pew Research Center found 37 percent of Vermonters described themselves as "unaffiliated" with any religion — the highest in the country. Time magazine reported last year on poll results from the Gallup organization in which 22 percent of Vermonters — the lowest in the country — described themselves as "very religious."

Four percent of Vermont's school children in kindergarten through 12th grade advantage of the philosophical exemption last year, according to state figures. Only 0.2 percent used the religious exemption, less than the 0.3 percent who qualified for a medical exemption.

Christine Finley, immunization program manager for the state Health Department, told The Associated Press the department will launch a public education campaign this winter to ensure parents are aware the philosophical exemption will disappear effective July 1, giving families time to schedule the needed doctors' appointments for children to get caught up on their shots.

Schools and child care centers around Vermont — both public and private, or "independent," as they are called in state law — "will be sending out notices to families that this is coming," Finley said. "This is the new law, and this is what we need to be doing."

Finley said the Health Department will release data in May that is likely to present the first clear picture of how many families are shifting from the philosophical exemption to a religious one.

"I think we'll know a lot more next year and that will give us a sort of baseline understanding going forward," said Jill Remick, a spokeswoman for the state Agency of Education.

School nurses are on the front lines of Vermont's efforts to get nearly all kids fully immunized. Several said they expect some families that do not want their children fully vaccinated may simply switch to the religious exemption.

Such a switch would seem suspicious because of the timing, said Claire Molner, nurse at the Proctor Junior/Senior High School. Some families object not to all, but to one or some vaccines, she noted.

But Molner said nurses with whom she's spoken don't want to be placed in a position in which they are asked to judge the sincerity of someone's religious belief.

"I don't think I can sit there and be the arbiter of somebody's faith," Molner said.

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