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Maine Senate protects religious exemption in vaccine bill after tense floor debate

The Senate roll-call vote on a motion to kill the amendment to protect a religious exemption. A green light indicates the vote against providing the religious exemption. A red light indicates a vote in favor of the religious exemption. Photo from official Maine Senate proceedings video stream.

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 exemption.

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 inappropriately.

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 religious beliefs.”

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.

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