Facing a major measles outbreak, New York has signed into a law a bill that ends religious exemptions for vaccinations.
The exemptions had allowed parents of children to cite their religious beliefs to opt a child out of the vaccines required for school enrollment. Similar exemptions are allowed in 46 states, though lawmakers in several of them are also considering the elimination of the waiver.
Shortly after the bill passed both houses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law.
The bill would not change an existing state exemption given to children who cannot have vaccines for medical reasons, such as a weakened immune system.
The law will take effect immediately but will give unvaccinated students up to 30 days after they enter a school to show they've had the first dose of each required immunization.
588 cases of the measles have been confirmed in New York City alone since the outbreak began in October. Federal health officials said last week that this year's U.S. measles epidemic has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years.
PROTESTS FROM 'ANTI-VAXXERS'
The state capitol was flooded Thursday with anti-vaccine activists who confronted lawmakers in the hallways and urged them to vote "no" on the bill.
"Right now, there are other exemptions to the vaccine requirements — especially what is known as the religious exemption," Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said. "But, unfortunately, many, many people have used that exemption more as a personal choice exemption, and as a result, too many kids go unvaccinated."
The first sign that the bill was potentially in trouble came early Thursday afternoon when the legislation barely cleared the Assembly Health Committee. One Democrat was forced to switch his "no" vote to a "yes," which enabled the bill to advance to the full floor by just one vote.
As the legislation moved to the Assembly chamber, a chaotic scene erupted on the floor as Assembly Democrats scrambled to find the votes to pass the bill. It ended up with only 77 votes in favor. 76 are needed for passage.
After the vote, the so-called "anti-vaxxers" sitting in the gallery hurled obscenities at members for passing the bill.
"This bill is attacking the First Amendment, the New York State Constitution Article III, and the Civil Rights Act of the United States of America," activist Stefanie Mahairas said.
Supporters of the bill say they understand the objections on religious grounds but public health takes precedent in this case.
"We have vaccinations that have saved millions and millions of lives," Dinowitz said. "We don't have small pox anymore. People don't get polio anymore. There's a reason for that: it's because of vaccinations. And measles can be a devastating disease."
Supporters of the bill say religious beliefs about vaccines shouldn't eclipse scientific evidence that they work, noting the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the right to enforce compulsory vaccination laws.
Even as recently as May, a bill to end most vaccinations stalled in the state legislature.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.