Impact | Citizen action preserves religious exemptions from vaccine mandates in New York

June 28, 2016

Tracing Impact Series | FFH highlights their partners’ work

John Gilmore, Executive Director of Autism Action Network

Efforts in New York to eliminate the traditional right of parents to obtain a religious exemption from vaccine mandates for their children in order to attend school died last week with the end of the legislative session. When these efforts were launched last summer, ferocious opposition greeted Senate Bill S6017, which had been introduced by State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from the Westside of Manhattan, and Assembly Bill A8329, introduced by Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat from the Riverdale area of the Bronx.

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A grassroots effort was immediately mobilized across the state to stop the bills. Organizers from Focus for Health, partners of the Autism Action Network, and the Foundation for Autism Information and Research organized scores of citizen advocate training sessions called “Lobbying 101.” Coalitions were formed with other citizens’ groups including My Kids My Choice and the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights. Lobbying 101 sessions were held across the state from the East End of Long Island to Buffalo, and Staten Island to the North Country on the Canadian border. Ordinary people were taught the mechanics of how legislation works, persuasive techniques, and arguments to use with elected officials. Most importantly, teams of constituents were organized to go in to see their legislators and let them know why these bills were a gross violation of our Constitutional rights, and completely unnecessary for public health reasons.

The result was literally hundreds of meetings with state representatives attended by thousands of constituents. For many legislators, this was their first constituent meeting on these important rights, and for most of the constituents, these meetings were the first time they had ever been to an elected official’s office to talk about legislation they cared about.

“When a dozen informed and organized constituents show up in a legislator’s office, they know they have a problem,”

said John Gilmore, an organizer for the Autism Action Network.

“As ordinary folks and voters, we have a credibility that can’t be matched by professional lobbyists.”

In the wake of California’s Senate Bill 277, a 2015 bill that eliminated the personal belief exemption in that state, a flurry of similar bills were introduced in several dozen states. Forty-seven states allow religious exemptions. California, West Virginia and Mississippi are the only states that do not. Seventeen states allow parents exemptions for any reason they chose, which is the standard among the developed democracies around the world. Canada, Japan, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, etc., all allow parents the final say on what is injected into their children’s bodies.

Hoylman’s bill picked up no co-sponsors among his fellow Senators, and the Dinowitz bill only picked up the support of 2 out of his 150 colleagues in the Assembly.

“Our success stopping this bill just goes to show that we can have an impact. But it takes organization, and people being willing to stand up and exercise their rights.”

Michael Smith, of the Foundation for Autism Information and Research

Focus for Health has been a proud partner of Autism Action Network since 2012.

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