Cahill, Schmitt break with their parties on dropping religious exemptions for vaccines

Two mid-Hudson lawmakers bucked their parties’ prevailing positions on Thursday as the state Legislature voted to end New York’s religious exemptions from mandatory school vaccinations in the midst of a measles outbreak that has affected parts of their region.

Democrats largely supported removing the exemption from state law, arguing that religious freedom doesn’t extend to letting kids get sick and spread a preventable illness, while Republicans largely voted in opposition after speaking in support of religious rights. Two outliers: Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Kingston Democrat who voted against the bill; and Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, a New Windsor Republican who supported it.

“Addressing the ongoing public health crisis is a laudable and well intentioned goal, but the bill passed by the Assembly today to repeal the religious exemption from vaccinations raises several concerns; none of which relate to the science around immunizations,” Cahill said in a statement explaining his vote. “One of the founding principles of our democracy is freedom of religion. An incremental roll back of this fundamental right sets a dangerous precedent and as a lawmaker, that alone was enough to vote against this bill on the floor today.”

Schmitt said a statement: “We need to follow policies that are designed to protect the health of the entire public. Vaccines are proven to be the safest and best way to protect the public from outbreaks of serious, sometimes life threatening diseases. This bill is intended to assure high rates of vaccine compliance which not only protects the vaccinated, but extends protection to populations vulnerable to disease from unvaccinated people – such as senior citizens, immune-compromised individuals, transplant patients and infants too young to be vaccinated.”

Also voting for the bill were: Sens. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, and Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale; and Assembly members Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, and Jonathan Jacobson, D-City of Newburgh.

“The clock is ticking, outbreaks are rising, and here in the state Senate, we are doing something about it,” Skoufis said after the vote. “Vaccines save lives, and unless there is a legitimate medical reason why someone can’t be vaccinated, immunizations ought to be required if that individual wants to be in public spaces. I’m proud that we took this step today and followed the scientific consensus to ensure the public’s health is protected.”

Jacobson said: “This was a common sense health bill. There is no greater priority and compelling state interest than protecting the public health.”

In addition to Cahill, local representatives who voted against the bill were Sens. James Seward, R-Milford, and George Amedore, R-Rotterdam; and Assemblymen Karl Brabenec, R-Deerpark, and Brian Miller, R-New Hartford.

The Assembly passed the bill in an 84-61 vote, following by the Senate’s 36-26 vote. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced immediately after the Senate vote that he already had signed the bill.

As of Thursday, Orange County had confirmed 49 measles cases since the fall and Sullivan had seven. The outbreak has spread largely among unvaccinated Hasidic kids and has taken its greatest toll in New York City, which has had 588 measles cases, and in Rockland County, which has had 266.

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