AUGUSTA – On Thursday the Maine Senate voted to amend a bill that
would eliminate two of Maine’s three vaccine exemptions in a law that governs
the vaccine requirements for school aged children to attend school in Maine. As
written, the bill would have made Maine only the fourth state in the nation not
to provide a religious exemption for vaccinating school-aged children.
The amendment approved by the Senate restored the religious exemption,
which would have been completely eliminated by a version of the bill previously
passed by the House.
The floor debate on the bill and amendment was tense.
Senator Rebecca Millett (D – Cumberland), a supporter of
eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions, rose to support the
proposal by Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby to kill the amendment to protect
the religious exemption, and in her speech, Millett claimed that among the
hundreds of pieces of testimony that the Education Committee received, only two
addressed the religious exemption.
Because Senator Millett’s presentation was considered out of order
for the use of “props”, according to Senate President Troy Jackson, Millett
then claimed that only two pieces of testimony “brought up religion.” Those
claims from Senator Millett and her speech in general would be rebuked by Senators
from both parties later in the debate.
Millett then went on to read from a blog post she found on the
internet to suggest that Mainers seeking a religious exemption would be coached
into how to mislead or lie to obtain a religious exemption.
Senator David Miramant, a Democrat from Knox County, said that you
can always find an example of a bad actor, but, while he didn’t want to impugn
anyone’s character, Senator Millett’s testimony was incorrect.
Senator Miramant said that testimony was focused on opposing the
attempt to remove both exemptions, and therefore the majority of testimony,
many hundreds of pieces in total, were in support of maintaining the religious
Senator Jeff Timberlake (R – Androscoggin) rose to take issue with
Senator Millett’s characterization of the testimony submitted by the Maine
Christian Civic League. In her floor speech, Senator Millett had read only one
sentence from that testimony, which she cherry-picked to create the appearance
that the MCCL was not concerned about the religious exemption, despite the fact
that the MCCL submitted the testimony in opposition to the bill itself.
After reading the testimony from the Civic League, Sen. Timberlake
recounted conversations with church leaders who said strongly that the religious
exemption should be protected. Senator Timberlake expressed disbelief that the
Maine Senate was even having a debate about forcing people to inject something
into their bodies. “I can’t believe we’re here,” he said.
Senator Heather Sanborn (D – Cumberland) spoke against protecting
the religious exemption, suggesting it was not needed and that it would move
the solution to “the wrong box.” At the heart of Sanborn’s testimony was the
suggestion that no major religion broadly opposes vaccinations, therefore the
religious exemption served no true purpose and would just be used
Senator Lisa Keim (R – Oxford) then spoke and said she found some
of the testimony she had heard insulting to Maine people. Senator Keim said that
some of her fellow Senators were insinuating that people would “lie about their
Senator Keim also said not passing the amendment would make Maine
an outlier among the fifty states and that it was important that lawmakers “always
respect people’s religious beliefs in every matter.”
Keim also said that lawmakers shouldn’t decide that because they
think one thing is more important than the other to take away the religious
rights of Maine people.
The motion to indefinitely postpone that amendment to include the
religious exemption was defeated by an 18-17 vote of the Senate and moments
later the vote to approve the amendment was approved “under the hammer”, or
without an additional roll call vote.
With the bill now amended, it will be return to the Maine House to be considered again by that body. The House could choose to agree to the Senate amendment and restore the religious exemption and potentially put the amended bill into law or vote again to insist on passage of the bill as it was originally drafted, which would likely kill the bill.
The amendment to restore the religious exemption also makes changes to the medical exemption portion of state law, allowing a nurse practitioner or physician assistant to provide the necessary approval for the medical exemption.
Either version of the bill under consideration now would eliminate the philosophical exemption, but that appears to be a trade off many are willing to make for what they see as an improved medical exemption and protection of the religious exemption.
The original proposal is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping (D – Orono) and has the support of Governor Janet Mills.