AUGUSTA — The debate over whether parents should be able to exempt their children from vaccinations because of religious beliefs is not over at the State House.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives, in a mostly party-line vote, insisted that its version of a bill removing philosophical and religious exemptions from the state’s school vaccination law be accepted.

A motion to accept a Senate version of the bill failed by a 65-76 vote. The Senate bill, which passed by one vote last week, removes the philosophical exemption but maintains the exemption for religious beliefs.

The action now moves back to the Senate, which must decide whether to accept and vote on the bill that passed the House or stick with the version the Senate passed last week. The vaccination issue could bounce back and forth between the two chambers until a compromise is reached, or if that doesn’t happen, the bill could die and the existing vaccination law would remain in effect.

Under that existing law, parents are able to obtain a medical exemption or sign a statement citing philosophical or religious grounds for opting their children out of vaccinations for measles, mumps, pertussis and other infectious diseases. That has resulted in Maine registering one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates for children entering kindergarten and the country’s highest rate of contracting pertussis, or whooping cough.

On Tuesday, Republicans in the House again argued that the bill went too far and is a violation of parental rights and religious freedom.

Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, said he was pro-vaccination, but changing the law would send an especially unwelcoming message to Muslim immigrants to Maine. Fecteau said he was contacted by a leader in the immigrant community in Portland asking him to support keeping the exemption. And he read a statement from that leader but did not identify him.

“My concern is we posted a welcome home sign at the border, welcome the Muslim people in, knowing they held a different religion and belief structure, and in my district they have been fantastic neighbors,” he said. “I feel that starting something and changing the rules halfway through sounds more like a game of Monopoly with a toddler than a sound state policy.”

But Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, the assistant majority leader in the House, said he studied theology in college and there was nothing about vaccines that violates any of the tenets of the major faiths practiced in Maine, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“Vaccinations serve the public interest,” he said, addressing his comments to House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. “They ensure you and me can be in this chamber today to debate issues in good health. And those outside this chamber can live, work and play without the risk of picking up a completely preventable disease along the way.”

A handful of Democrats have joined Republicans in opposing more stringent vaccination standards, often pointing to families who have said their children suffered serious side effects from vaccines.

The Senate last week voted 20-15 to give initial approval to a bill, L.D. 798, ending both philosophical and religious exemptions and effectively mandating that almost all children be vaccinated in order to attend schools.

Four Senate Democrats – Sen. David Miramant of Camden, Sen. Erin Herbig of Belfast, Sen. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth and Sen. James Dill of Old Town – then joined the chamber’s 14 Republicans to amend the bill to preserve religious exemptions. Under the bill, medical exemptions to vaccinations would still be allowed.

Miramant, who was the only Democrat to oppose the original bill, said that 9,000 children could be prohibited from attending school because they lacked all the required vaccinations. He also said he has heard from Mainers who were prepared to leave the state if they couldn’t get a philosophical or religious exemption.

But proponents contend that retaining the exemptions increases the risk of exposure to infectious diseases for children who are immuno-compromised or too young for vaccinations.

Both Luchini and Herbig declined to comment Tuesday on whether they would consider changing their votes when the bill comes back to the Senate for another vote.

Dill said he was interested in seeing if Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, would be willing to broaden the medical exemption provided under the law. Mills’ administration testified in support of the original bill, that does away with the religious exemption.

“The governor believes the most effective way to avoid the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases and protect Maine people, especially children, would be to pass the House bill,” her spokesman, Scott Ogden, said in an email Tuesday.

Dill said that of the Democrats who voted to keep the religious exemption, he was the most likely to change his position.

He said he wanted the law to be such that children could be tested for possible complications from vaccines and that as a scientist he believed vaccines were beneficial. “But let’s look into the science of it more and look at those medical exemptions and how to best work on those medical exemptions,” Dill said.

The votes and the debate come as Maine and other states around the nation are facing growing incidents of infectious disease outbreaks, which health officials say could have been avoided with readily available vaccinations.

Like many states, Maine has seen an increase in the number of parents opting not to vaccinate against a host of infectious diseases because of concerns about side effects from vaccinations or for religious reasons.

But public health officials counter that much of that concern is based on misinformation and warn that the growing number of unvaccinated children is compromising so-called “herd immunity” that prevents the spread of infectious diseases.

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