Kate Herrold, of Falmouth, holds her daughter with other mothers in a hallway, Thursday, May 2, 2019, at the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Marina Villeneuve | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a pressure-packed and surprising Thursday vote, the Maine Senate endorsed an amendment by a one-vote margin that would retain a religious exemption to school vaccine requirements that could throw the passage of a high-profile bill into doubt.

The proposal from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, is a response to rising opt-out rates in Maine, which had the sixth-highest opt-out rate among states for one vaccine in the last school year. As approved by the House of Representatives, it would repeal nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements and make Maine the fourth state to have no religious exemption.

The number of kindergartners citing nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements rose from 5 percent to 5.6 percent in Maine during the current school year. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says the rising rate is endangering “herd immunity,” a threshold of vaccinated people making it difficult for contagious diseases to spread.

[Map: See if kindergartners are vaccinated against measles at your school]

The Senate voted 18-17 on Thursday to retain that exemption and just dump a personal exemption. Four Democrats — David Miramant of Camden, Erin Herbig of Belfast, Louis Luchini of Ellsworth and Jim Dill of Old Town — voted with Republicans on that.

The move throws the bill into disagreement between the Democratic-controlled Senate and House of Representatives in an initial test for new Democratic leaders. The House endorsed getting rid of both exemptions last week and the bill faces further action in both chambers.

The push to retain the religious exemption came from Miramant, a vaccine skeptic who helped lead opposition to Tipping’s bill. It effectively overrode an earlier 20-15 vote in favor of the version that passed the House, with all Republicans and Miramant opposed.

[Maine House gives initial OK to removal of nonmedical vaccination exemptions]

After the vote, Luchini said he was concerned that Maine would be a national outlier in scrapping the religious exemption. He also said elite universities — including his alma mater of Stanford University in California — retain that exemption, though he said he could vote for the original version in the end.

“I’d rather see it with the religious exemption, but that doesn’t mean I’m 100 percent locked in,” Luchini said.

More than four-fifths of the 6.2 percent of kindergartners who cited vaccine exemptions in the current school year cited the personal exemption and only 6 percent of the unvaccinated kids as a whole cited the religious one, according to Maine CDC data. But Democrats warned on the floor that keeping one nonmedical exemption while scrapping the other could render the law ineffective in practice.

As endorsed by the House, the proposal that eliminates all non-medical exemptions is backed by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and members of the medical community. Democrats cited medical concerns in floor speeches supporting the bill on Thursday.

“At the end of the day, this bill is about making sure our public schools are safe, healthy environments for our young people to learn and grow,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the co-chair of the Legislature’s education committee.

The bill faced withering opposition from hundreds at a March public hearing who cited reasons ranging from pseudoscience — including a debunked connection between one vaccine and autism — to those rooted in personal and religious freedom.

[Vaccination debate draws hundreds to Maine State House]

Arguments against the bill ran the gamut on the Senate floor, with most citing personal and parental rights, though Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells, told the story of the death of his otherwise healthy infant daughter. He said her death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome but came after she received a vaccine that he partially blames for her death.

While the U.S. government says studies have found no link between vaccination and SIDS, Foley told lawmakers that “unless you believe that healthy babies die for no reason,” they should oppose the bill.

“I think that if we do not include this exemption, Maine is a complete outlier in all of the United States and it is important that we always respect religious beliefs in every matter,” Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said.

For a roundup of Maine political news, click here to receive Daily Brief, Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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...