Capitol Alert

California vaccine bill easily clears Senate judiciary panel

Avoiding the stumble that marked the bill’s last hearing, a California Senate committee on Tuesday advanced a bill mandating full vaccination for most children attending private and public schools.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 277 on a 5-1 vote and sent the legislation to the Senate Appropriations Committee, its last stop before a potential Senate floor vote, after which it would proceed to the Assembly.

The bill nearly ran aground during its previous stop in the Senate Education Committee, where concerns about children being able to get an education forced the authors to delay a vote and accept amendments expanding homeschooling and independent study options.

While opponents of SB 277 again packed the hearing room and jammed Capitol corridors Tuesday, the bill enjoyed a smoother passage through the judiciary committee. Every Democrat on the panel had either signed on as a co-sponsor or voted in favor before the bill came before the committee on Tuesday.

Legal precedent supports the state’s ability to effectively require vaccination as a condition for enrolling in school, argued one of the bill’s author’s, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica. Despite having concerns about the bill’s impact on children’s right to an education, the American Civil Liberties Union has a neutral position on the bill.

“The courts have been clear,” Allen said. “The state has a right to require vaccinations for attendance in school.”

The U.S. Constitution does not demand the type of personal belief exemption California and other states offer to parents, UC Hastings School of Law professor Dorit Reiss testified. Nor are states obligated to offer an opt-out for religious beliefs, permitted in all but two states, that SB 277 would eliminate in California, she said.

“You don’t get to not pay taxes because you have religious objections to them, you don’t get to use controlled substances in religious rituals when everyone else is prohibited ... and unless the state decides voluntarily to grant it, you don’t get to be exempt from school immunization requirements because you have religious opposition,” Reiss said.

Disputing those points, New York University law scholar Mary Holland argued the bill would upend informed consent, discriminate against some families and spawn lawsuits.

“It will be challenged in state and federal courts,” Holland said.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, an attorney who chairs the committee, repeatedly pushed back on those arguments and asked for more legal context. She chided Holland for raising the prospect of California jailing nonvaccinating parents and for saying SB 277 would enable coercion she compared to rape.

“You can ask rhetorical questions, but not to suggest things that are nowhere contemplated by any (bill) language,” Jackson said. “All they do is inflame this discussion, which doesn’t need to be inflamed.”

Amendments to the bill would compel schoolchildren to have only the 10 vaccines the California Department of Public Health currently requires for kids without an exemption. Parents could still opt out of any new shots recommended by the department.

Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said those changes should reassure critics who believe vaccine requirements are driven more by pharmaceutical industry profits than by public health.

“We do not have this long, open-ended issue and these perverse incentives,” Hertzberg said.

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