Assistant professor Kenneth McCall prepares a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination at the Portland Community Health Center, March 9, 2015.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives initially approved a bill on Tuesday that would repeal all nonmedical exemptions to school vaccination requirements, putting it on track to pass and create some of the most stringent immunization laws in the country.

The bill from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, is aimed at addressing rising opt-out rates in Maine. Only six states had a higher opt-out rate than Maine in the last school year and the share of kindergartners vaccinated for measles dropped in this school year for the third straight year.

All but eight Democrats and just three Republicans voted to pass Tipping’s proposal in a 78-59 vote in the House on Tuesday. It faces further action in both chambers and a last-ditch Republican attempt to preserve a religious exemption failed in a narrow 72-64 vote, with 11 Democrats joining all Republicans in an unsuccessful bid to alter the bill.

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The votes came after more than 90 minutes of floor speeches, with Republicans criticizing it as legislation that would remove parental and individual rights, while Democrats touted it as a necessary public safety measure.

The bill would remove the personal and religious exemptions to immunization requirements effective in 2021 while a medical exemption would stay in place. Parents seeking a medical exemption for their child will have to present their school with a licensed medical professional’s written opinion explaining why immunization is “medically inadvisable.”

In the 2018-19 school year, the share of students citing nonmedical exemptions rose from 5 percent to 5.6 percent, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that mark risks the state’s “herd immunity,” a threshold where it becomes nearly impossible for contagious diseases to spread.

Echoing an argument wielded by supporters of the bill on the House floor, Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, said, “I respect individual liberties … but nobody in this state has a religious exemption or philosophical exemption that compromises the welfare or the health of children and families in this state.”

The Mills administration and members of the medical community back the bill, which became a flashpoint for hundreds of conservatives and vaccine skeptics who packed a March public hearing to oppose the bill largely on parental rights grounds.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, who proposed the amendment that failed narrowly, would have removed the philosophical exemption option while retaining the avenue for people to claim a religious exemption, called Tipping’s bill “un-American” and a “civil rights violation.”

Passage of the bill will lead to “isolating, marginalizing, stigmatizing and segregating a small portion of our population because we are concerned about the threat of the unvaccinated,” Sampson said. “We are threatening and coercing people into submitting their body to be injected when they object.”

The bill would make Maine one of the most aggressive states in mandating vaccines. Personal exemptions to vaccine requirements exist in 17 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine would join only three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — in having no religious exemption if the bill passes.

Only three Republicans — Assistant Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle and Reps. Scott Strom of Pittsfield and Ted Kryzak of Acton — voted with Democrats to endorse the bill.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...