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New York ends religious exemption to vaccine mandates

FILE - In this March 27, 2019 file photo, a woman receives a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., north of New York City. On Wednesday, June 5, 2019, federal health officials updated the U.S. measles case count, saying 1,001 illnesses have been reported since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York eliminated the religious exemption to vaccine requirements for schoolchildren Thursday, as the nation's worst measles outbreak in decades prompts states to reconsider giving parents ways to opt out of immunization rules.

The Democrat-led Senate and Assembly voted Thursday to repeal the exemption, which allows parents to cite religious beliefs to forego getting their child the vaccines required for school enrollment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the measure minutes after the final vote. The law takes 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.

With New York's move, similar exemptions are still allowed in 45 states, though lawmakers in several of them have introduced their own legislation to eliminate the waiver.

The issue is hotly contested and debate around it has often been emotional, pitting cries that religious freedom is being curtailed against warnings that public health is being endangered. After the vote in the Assembly, many of those watching from the gallery erupted in cries of "shame!" One woman yelled obscenities down to the lawmakers below.

The debate has only intensified with this year's measles outbreak , which federal officials recently said has surpassed 1,000 illnesses, the highest in 27 years.

"I'm not aware of anything in the Torah, the Bible, the Koran or anything else that suggests you should not get vaccinated," said Bronx Democrat Jeffrey Dinowitz, the bill's Assembly sponsor. "If you choose to not vaccinate your child, therefore potentially endangering other children ... then you're the one choosing not to send your children to school."

Hundreds of parents of unvaccinated children gathered at New York's Capitol for the vote to protest.

Stan Yung, a Long Island attorney and father, said his Russian Orthodox religious views and health concerns about vaccines will prevent him from vaccinating his three young children. His family, he said, may consider leaving the state.

"People came to this country to get away from exactly this kind of stuff," Yung said ahead of Thursday's votes.

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. During the Assembly's floor debate, supporters brought up scourges of the past that were defeated in the U.S. through vaccines.

"I'm old enough to have been around when polio was a real threat," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan. "I believe in science.... Your personal opinions, which may be based on junk science, do not trump the greater good."