Proposed changes to religious exemption form for school vaccine mandates draw pushback

By: - August 25, 2022 5:00 am

The Department of Health and Human Services is proposing changes to the information parents must provide when seeking a religious exemption from school and child care mandates. Critics say the changes would violate privacy rights. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Under a new state law, the Department of Health and Human Services has dropped its requirement that parents get a notary’s signature when they submit a form exempting their child from school and child care vaccine mandates for religious reasons. 

But the department is proposing new requirements that have angered the law’s prime sponsor and activists who vehemently opposed vaccine mandates this session. 

The revised religious exemption form asks parents to identify which of the six required vaccines their child hasn’t received, something not currently required. It also requires parents to acknowledge that not vaccinating their child against a disease poses a risk their child could contract that disease and transmit it to others, also not part of the current form. 

Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican and prime sponsor of House Bill 1035, said those additions exceed the department’s authority because they were not included in his bill, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed in May. Lang said requiring parents to disclose which vaccines their child hasn’t received violates a 2018 state constitutional amendment that affirmed Granite Staters’ “right to live free from governmental intrusion in private or personal information is natural, essential, and inherent.” He said he could foresee someone using the information to bring a charge of neglect against a parent who’d opted to forgo a vaccination.

Lang intends to raise those concerns when the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, which he sits on, takes up the department’s proposal Sept. 15. The committee has the authority to approve or reject the department’s proposal or require the department to revise it.

Currently, the form is available to parents but will not be required until the committee approves it as an interim rule change, something that could happen in the coming weeks, said Health and Human Services spokesman Jake Leon. 

Rebuild NH, which led fierce opposition to vaccine and other COVID-19 related bills this session, is also mobilizing its members to oppose the department’s proposal, urging them to contact all members of the committee. 

If the rules committee gives initial approval to the proposed form, the Department of Health and Human Services will schedule a public hearing and then seek final approval from the committee. The public will have the week following the hearing to submit written comments to the department.

“The whole point of this conversion in the Legislature this year was how much data we are collecting from citizens … in violation of the constitutional amendment,” Lang said. He said he’s seen a “huge” objection” from the public.

New Hampshire requires children to have six vaccines to attend school or child care facilities: DTaP, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough; polio; hepatitis B; Hib, a protection against bacterial illness that can cause meningitis, pneumonia, and other infections; MMR, which targets measles, mumps, and rubella; and varicella, a chicken pox protection. 

There is no requirement that children receive a COVID-19 vaccine. A Democratic bill proposing a COVID-19 vaccine to attend schools, including colleges and universities, never made it out of the House, failing in a voice vote.

Leon said the request to identify which vaccines the child does not have is intended to simplify the exemption process for school administrators and parents. Some parents seek to exempt their child from one or a few vaccines but not all six. 

Last school year, just 2 percent of public and private school students in preschool through grade 12 received a religious exemption from school vaccine requirements, according to the state Division of Public Health Services. (Screenshot)

While school and child care vaccine mandates have gotten a lot of attention at the State House, very few parents have requested religious exemptions. 

During the last school year, 2 percent of private and public school students in preschool to grade 12 had received a religious exemption, according to the state Division of Public Health Services’ annual school immunization report. The percentage was higher among only private school students in those grades at 5 percent. 

More concerning is the drop in the number of parents having their children vaccinated nationally and in the state, said Leon. He said the department has seen childhood vaccinations slowly increase in New Hampshire, but they are still down compared to pre-pandemic levels. That decline has largely been attributed to parents canceling or skipping well-child visits with their child’s health care provider during the pandemic. 

“Public health officials are very concerned to see more children losing out on protection from preventable diseases,” he said in an email. “Decreased vaccination rates put individuals and communities at greater risk for the spread of disease, which may result in increased hospitalizations, increased health care costs, missed days of work/school, and lead to chronic conditions or in rare cases, death.”

He said the department is not concerned that eliminating the notarization requirement on the form will lead to a significant increase in religious exemption requests. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is also proposing changes to the form that allows parents to remove their child’s immunization records from the state’s immunization registry, which the department says provides valuable public health information and allows parents and providers to easily keep track of their children’s vaccination records. For some families the registry is the only or most reliable record.

House Bill 1487 sought to eliminate a requirement that a health care provider sign a withdrawal form before a parent could submit it. In a compromise, lawmakers retained that requirement but expanded it to also allow a notary to sign off. Sununu signed the bill in July.

The department’s proposed changes would govern the process for adults to remove their or their child’s vaccine records from the registry. 

Individuals would be required to acknowledge that they can change their mind and re-enroll in the registry; will lose all existing vaccination records in the registry; and can still be vaccinated or have their child vaccinated. Individuals would also be required to acknowledge that it is their responsibility to tell their health care providers to stop including vaccination records in the registry. 

Individuals had to make those acknowledgements under the prior process but did so with their health care provider before the provider signed the withdrawal form. The bill required that those acknowledgements now appear on the state’s form.   

The rule committee chairman, Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, has mostly received what he called “manufactured” form letters objecting to the department’s proposed rule changes. Those letters aren’t persuasive, he said, not only because they are impersonal but also because the department’s eventual public hearing is the appropriate venue to raise objections. The committee will consider that input before it acts on a final rule, he said.

“They are barking up the wrong tree at the wrong time,” he said. Though, he said, the rules committee does allow public comment at its meetings.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.