State health officials want to create a religious exemption from routine vaccinations for children and staff at childcare facilities and children in certain nursing homes.
Under the two proposed Administrative Rules changes, parents, guardians and child caregivers could provide a notarized affidavit stating that vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and whooping cough violates their religious beliefs or practices. The childcare measure would also remove an existing requirement for unvaccinated children to stay away from a facility if someone there has contracted a disease against which they are not fully immunized.
State regulations for foster families currently state that all children in foster care other than the foster child must be vaccinated against 11 diseases unless a doctor’s exemption is granted. The proposed change would add a religious exemption to the medical exemption.
Officials with the Department of Public Health and Human Services wrote that the proposals are intended to conform to two state laws passed in 2021. Senate Bill 215, also known as the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prohibits the state from encumbering a person’s right to the exercise of religious freedom. House Bill 702 prohibits discrimination based on a person’s immunization status. Department officials said the childcare change will align with existing K-12 school rules, which already include a religious exception.
A 2013 study found that most religions, including many Christian denominations, have no theological objection to vaccination. Those doing so include Dutch Reformed congregations and a handful of faith healing denominations, while others have restrictions on certain vaccine ingredients.
The childcare proposal says smaller and home-based settings could decide whether to enroll unvaccinated children, but they must have written policies or procedures they can show parents. Centers enrolling 16 or more children would not have this option.
The department is accepting public comments on the measures through September 2 and will hold a public hearing on August 25 for the child care proposal and August 26 for the long-term care measure.
Paula Grassy, whose Helena-based Grassroots Montessori enrolls six preschoolers, said she opposes allowing parents or guardians to refuse vaccination of children attending childcare based on religious beliefs. “Religion should not play a role in health and safety decisions like immunization against serious childhood diseases,” Grassy said.
Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association, said immunization waivers that are “strongly requested and complied with” can lower a facility’s overall immunization rate and put infants and other under-vaccinated children at greater risk.
“Having worked in licensed childcare for over 40 years, I know that childcare providers will not accept exceptions of any kind that endanger the health and safety of young children,” Lehnhoff said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom producing in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.