On June 13, Governor Cuomo signed legislation removing the religious exemption from vaccinations (Chapter 35 of the Laws of 2019). Now, the only exemption would be when immunization presents a risk to a child’s health. This change in law will benefit child health and have a significant impact on schools.

New York state law (Public Health Law section 2164) mandates all children ages two months to 18 years receive certain immunizations. If they do not, they cannot attend school. Immunizations must be given for diseases including poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, HiB, hepatitis B, and varicella.

The law provides an exemption if a physician certifies that the immunization would be detrimental to the child’s health (Public Health Law 2164(8)). An exemption had also existed for those with sincerely held religious beliefs (Public Health Law 2164(9)). Those claiming a sincerely held religious belief must demonstrate it to the school principal, who is then permitted to determine whether the belief is sincerely held. This has led to considerable litigation (Commissioner Appeals) over the years.

Those days are over.

The religious exemption is repealed. Now only those children who have a certified health risk from immunizations are exempt. All others must be immunized. Fueled by data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and quite likely responding to the proliferation of measles outbreaks in multiple parts of New York state, the legislature passed and the Governor signed into law a repeal of the religious exemption. The bill is effective immediately.

With only a few days of school remaining, the Legislature and Governor may have addressed a problem and also created another. With an “immediate” effective date, the Governor’s signature leaves open a question of how schools should treat children granted exemptions from immunization in the past based on sincerely held religious beliefs. By simply striking the exemption provision of the law, schools are left to consider if previously authorized exemptions are null and void. Whether students would need to be removed or immunized at the start of Regents testing week is unclear.

School districts should consider carefully any children in such situations before immediately applying this provision retroactively. Equally, plans should begin to be developed now for anticipation of the new school year; particularly to address those with previous previously religious exemptions.

For more information about the immunization change in law, contact Jeffrey Weiss or the Harris Beach attorney you work most closely with.

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Melville, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Uniondale and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.