By Denis Slattery
Amid a record national outbreak in measles, New York state lawmakers outlawed religious exemptions to vaccination, shutting down anti-vaxxers who called the move unconstitutional.
Gov. Cuomo signed a bill into law Thursday evening.
Both the Democrat-led Assembly and Senate spent the previous hours wrangling over whether or not to repeal the exemption, which allows parents not immunize their children because of their religious beliefs.
The current outbreak has been concentrated in the Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg.
The shouts of raucous protesters, camped out in the hallways and galleries of the Capitol Building, could be heard echoing through the Assembly chamber Thursday as elected officials argued on the floor. The crowd erupted in jeers and expletive-laden taunts as the legislation passed.
The bill's sponsor was undeterred.
"I think the primary objective we should all have above everything is to protect public health, particularly that of children, " Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) said during a back-and-forth with one of his colleagues.
Earlier in the afternoon, the measure narrowly made it out of the Assembly health committee as Yonkers Democrat Nader Sayegh cast a dramatic tie-breaking vote following a brief aside with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
Resistance to the bill came from well-organized groups of parents and anti-vaxxers who question the safety of inoculations. They carried signs, visited legislator's offices, held rallies around the capital in recent weeks, as they repeated discredited claims that vaccines are linked to autism and that illnesses such as measles, mumps and chickenpox "keep you healthy" and "fight cancer."
The law would not force parents to vaccinate their kids, but instead would bar children who have not received the inoculations from schools and daycares. Maine recently joined California and Mississippi in barring exemptions other than for medical reasons.
Some lawmakers in the Assembly, including a number of Democrats, expressed concern about the constitutionality of ending the religious exemption while others echoed the protesters' gripes about safety and freedom.
Assembly health committee chairman Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan) voted against it.
"The First Amendment is fundamental and we should be very wary of limiting its protections," he said during the debate.
The Senate passed the measure by a 36-26 margin.
"We're putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immuno-compromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can't be vaccinated through no fault of their own," said sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). "With our actions today, we can help avoid future outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles."
Federal health officials said last week that the current measles outbreak is the most widespread in 27 years, surpassing 1,000 confirmed cases. New York has remained the epicenter of the epidemic with the majority of cases in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County.
The highly contagious yet preventable disease was considered eradicated in 2000.
City officials said this week that 588 cases of the potentially deadly virus have been confirmed in the five boroughs since September, but noted that cases are slowing amid a rise in city-ordered vaccinations.
"Vaccines save lives. We are in the midst of a measles epidemic which is completely preventable given proper immunizations," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. "The fact that New York State has the overwhelming majority of these measles cases is shameful, and we must step up to protect New Yorkers' health."
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