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Journal Tribune
Updated May 18, 2019
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Maine Senate reverses course, ends religious exemption for vaccines

The vote followed an impassioned debate by opponents to the shift, who said the law would send thousands of families packing while doing little to improve public health or protect children from preventable diseases.

The mostly party-line vote, with Republicans in opposition and Democrats favoring the change, saw three Democrats join with Republicans in a failed effort to preserve the religious exemption. But one Democrat who supported the exemption in a vote last week changed his position on Tuesday, altering the results.

“We are pushing religious people out of our great state,” said Sen. Lisa Kiem, R-Rumford prior to the vote. “And we will also be closing the door on religious people who may consider making Maine their home. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t believe an exodus would come about.”

But supporters of the bill said religious exemptions for preventable diseases put others at risk, especially children with compromised immune systems, like those recovering from childhood cancers or other illnesses.

Supporters also said they had no intention of driving families from Maine or children from public schools here.

“It is absolutely, not now, and it never will be my interest in keeping any child from his or her education,” Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Brunswick said.

Carson told the story of his own granddaughter’s experience with childhood leukemia and the risk she was at during recovery.

The bill has been one of the most controversial measure to move through the Legislature in recent years, drawing hundreds of people to the State House to testify on the bill before the Legislature’s Education Committee. The hearing lasted for more than 14 hours before ending in the early morning.

Many of those people testified in opposition, and dozens of them were on hand for the vote on Tuesday.

Sen. James Dill, D-Old Town, a scientist who works for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, first supported the religious exemption but changed his vote Tuesday to push the measure through.

The Maine House in April voted 78-59 to reject a Senate amendment to the bill that would have restored the religious exemption.

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