California has always had a reputation as a trend-setter, and the stateâ€™s recently passed vaccination bill has national bellwether potential â€” but only if it can survive the governorâ€™s scrutiny and an almost certain legal challenge.
On Thursday, the Assembly approved Senate Bill 277, which would do away with â€œpersonal beliefâ€ and religious exemptions from vaccination. The legislation would prevent children from attending public schools if they have not received the full schedule of 10 vaccinations, from diphtheria to varicella.
The bill is expected to land on Gov. Jerry Brownâ€™s desk soon, and if he signs it, then California will be one of only three states in the nation to grant vaccine exemptions only if a licensed doctor certifies that a child has a valid medical condition or family history of illness that makes inoculation unsafe.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, currently ban religious or personal-belief exemptions. While religious waivers for immunization are nearly universal in the U.S., 32 states have already eliminated personal-belief exemptions.
Californiaâ€™s measure arrives after the state saw 136 measles cases spring up during an outbreak this winter that started at Disneyland in Anaheim. The measles resurgence led lawmakers in a dozen states to consider modifying their exemption laws. But none has attempted changes as broad as Californiaâ€™s, said Christine Goodwin, a program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
â€œIn 2015, and in recent years, it seems that more states are considering more narrow changes to their exemption policies, rather than repealing them all together,â€ Goodwin said.
Earlier this year legislators in Oregon and Washington tabled proposals to repeal personal belief exemptions. Vermont successfully eliminated the option, but kept its religious exemption in place.
If successful, said several legal experts, Californiaâ€™s SB 277 could end up becoming the test case for the nation.
â€œWhen you have an influential state adopt a novel resolution and the legal structure is not well-defined you have the opportunity for a lot of uncertainty and a lot of impact,â€ said Glenn Smith, a professor of constitutional law at California Western School of Law.
Lawrence Gostin, director of the Oâ€™Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said that California would definitely be a bellwether if its vaccine bill becomes law.
â€œJust as California led the way with climate change, it could lead the way with public health. If a state as large and influential as California were to signal the crucial importance of childhood vaccines, other states would surely take notice,â€ Gostin said.
But there are some big caveats included in all statements of precedent setting.
SB 277 has become quite controversial, drawing hundreds of protesters to Sacramento in recent weeks as the legislation was debated, and eventually approved, by both the state Senate and the Assembly.
One grass roots group, A Voice for Choice, has promised to sue if the governor approves, a move that protesters say will take away their constitutional right to choose what’s right for their children.