The pre-filing period before any legislative session is a good time to float trial balloons in the form of proposed legislation unlikely to get adopted during the session, but likely to draw some attention as a statement at introduction.
Count Sen. Lauren Book’s proposal to end religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations among those type of bills.
No sooner had Book, D-Plantation, pre-filed Senate Bill 64 on Aug. 2, anti-vaccination groups quickly spearheaded an overwhelmingly negative response, painting it as an attack on religious freedom and parental choice.
As a trial balloon, SB 64 thus served its purpose: No way would it pass.
“This is not going to be heard this session,” Book told GateHouse Media last week, acknowledging Senate Health Policy Chair Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, has informed her the bill won’t get a committee hearing.
“Correct,” Book elaborated to The Center Square, “but it’s worthwhile, substantive legislation and I will not be withdrawing it.”
Book filed the bill after the Tampa Bay Times reported that, from 2011 and 2018, the number of non-medical exemptions granted by the Florida Department of Health has jumped each year from about 6,500 to nearly 25,000, a 375-percent increase in less than decade.
According to the Florida Department of Health (DOH), 25 of the state’s 67 counties in 2018 failed to meet DOH’s goal of 95 percent of kindergarten students being vaccinated while 61 counties topped that 95 percent ratio for seventh-grade students.
The 2.9 percent of kindergartners – 6,402 kindergartners out of 224,641 students statewide – who received religious exemptions from being vaccinated was an all-time high, DOH reported.
“We need to be discussing this issue,” Book said. “Researchers warn Miami-Dade is in the top three most vulnerable to an outbreak like those in New York and California – and Broward and Hillsborough (counties) are in the top 15 most vulnerable.”
Karen Sweeney, a legislative aide in Harrell’s Tallahassee office, said Wednesday, “the senator will not hear (SB 64) in its current format” but that does not mean an amended bill or even a newly submitted proposal won’t be heard during the session.
Nevertheless, Book said in a Tuesday tweet: “I have not withdrawn SB 64.”
SB 64 is similar to a measure adopted earlier this year in New York, which joined California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states requiring public school children be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason, prohibiting any religious exemptions.
New York lawmakers adopted their new law disallowing religious exemptions from vaccinations after a measles outbreak in 28 states, including Florida, sickened more than 1,000 people.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, there were confirmed measles cases reported in 31 states in October, the nation’s largest measles outbreak since 1992.
Book even had a Rabbi provide a statement that vaccinations are not against God’s will.
“Of the world’s major religions, none forbid vaccinations,” Rabbi Dr. David Shabtai of Boca Raton states. “Even if there are some out there who believe that their religious beliefs prohibit vaccinations, protecting their religious liberties cannot come at the expense of putting everybody else’s children in danger."
In an Oct. 3 Facebook post – which had 503 comments by Oct. 13 – Book said the “alarming trend” in religious vaccination exemptions was putting all school children at risk.
“It is time for Florida's leaders to come to the table to discuss this critical public health issue -- which is why I filed SB 64 removing non-medical vaccine exemptions,” Book wrote.
But while religious leaders are among those who objected to the bill, its most vociferous critics were parents and personal liberty advocates who claimed Book was trying to impose a state mandate that benefits no one but pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Anti-vaccine groups Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, the National Vaccine Information Center, Florida Health Action Network and the Florida Freedom Alliance orchestrated social media opposition and spurred large anti-vaccination turn-outs at public discussions on the bill in Broward, Manatee and Escambia counties.
A Florida anti-vaccination group, Explain Life, had gathered 4,753 signatures by Monday afternoon on a petition asking Book withdraw SB 64, claiming the bill would “interfere with the doctor/patient relationship by requiring a state-overseen medical exemption review panel to determine the validity of medical exemptions for vaccination.”
“In essence, SB 64 is architected to reproduce newly legislated medical system in California, where children no longer have the right go to school unless they are fully compliant with the vaccination schedule,” Explain Florida said.