Governor Jerry Brown signs California Bill AB 2109, but tries to water it down in a sop to religion

I’ve been blogging a lot about California Bill AB 2109. Basically, it’s a bill that was proposed as a means of addressing the increasing problem of non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates because religious and philosophical exemptions are too easy to obtain. Boiled down to its essence, AB 2109 would require parents to see a pediatrician or health care practitioner for a discussion of the benefits and risks of vaccines and, more importantly, the risks of not vaccinating. You’d think that the antivaccine movement wouldn’t have a problem with a bill that in essence requires informed consent before an exemption from the school vaccine mandate would be granted. After all, they’re always harping on informed consent, claiming that parents aren’t given adequate informed consent because they aren’t told that vaccines can cause autism and all the other complications antivaccinationists fervently believe they can. That’s because what antivaccinationists really want is what I like to call “misinformed consent.” AB 2109 in essence turns the tables on the antivaccine movement by using its own tactic against it. You want “informed consent,” more states seem to be saying, well, then we’ll give you informed consent. To get a philosophical exemption from vaccination, you’ll need to speak to a doctor and have him or her sign an attestation that you’ve been counseled. You can’t just sign a form yourself anymore. That’s what Washington did, and that’s what AB 2109 does.

At every stage of its journey through the California legislature, AB 2109 has been bitterly resisted by antivaccinationists. For instance, “Dr. Bob” Sears launched a fallacy-filled attack on AB 2109, and opponents of the bill even managed to get Rob Schneider not only to speak out against the bill, but to speak at a recent rally against the bill. Particularly offensive was Schneider’s invocation of the Nazi card, likening AB 2109 to a violation of the Nuremberg Code. Yes, Schneider has plumbed depths of stupid that few antivaccinationists have plumbed before, which tells me that he’s a rising star in the pro-quackery movement.

The reason I’m mentioning all of this is because, as last week closed, I noted my happiness that AB 2109 had been passed by both houses of the California legislature but my concern that, for some reason, Governor Jerry Brown had not yet signed it. Indeed, I was hoping that people would go out and counter an antivaccine rally in Sacramento on Friday designed to put pressure on Governor Brown to veto the bill (or not to sign it by the deadline, September 30, which would have had the same effect).

So, did the pressure work? Fortunately, no. Governor Brown signed the bill. He’s also issued a signing message. Unfortunately, Governor Brown tried to water down the bill. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. First, Brown writes:

This bill is about explaining the value of vaccinations – both the benefits and risks – for an individual child and the community. Whether these are simple “information exchanges” or more detailed discussions, they will be valuable even if a parent chooses not to vaccinate.

So far, so good. Now here’s where Brown blows it:

I am signing AB 2109 and am directing the Department of Public Health to oversee this policy so parents are not overly burdened by its implementation. Additionally, I will direct the department to allow for a separate religious exemption on the form. In this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner’s signature.

Arrrgh!

Remember how I’ve discussed how religion-inspired objections to vaccination are privileged above non-religious philosophical objections? As I’ve argued, there should not be a difference between religious and non-religious nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements. Either nonmedical exemptions to vaccine mandates should be allowed for any philosophical reason, religious or nonreligious, or, preferably, they should not. To do otherwise is to give undue weight to religious belief over nonreligious belief and discriminate against nonbelievers, which is exactly what Governor Brown is trying to do with his instructions to the Department of Public Health. Why should parents whose objection is religious be exempted from having to see a health care professional for a discussion of vaccine benefits and risks while parents whose objection is not religious are not? There is no good reason, and certainly such a discussion is not an undue burden on anyone’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. I don’t know what Brown is trying to do here. Well, actually, I think I do. He’s pandering. That’s what he’s doing. His pandering, however, could have real consequences. If he has his way all any parent would have to do to avoid having to see a health care practitioner as mandated in AB 2109 would have to do is to decide that her objection to vaccines is religious in nature. If Brown’s signing statement holds sway, all of the work to get AB 2109 could well have been for naught.

I wonder, though, whether Brown can actually do what he claims in his signing statement. Look at the text of AB 2109. Nowhere is religion even mentioned. It simply refers to immunizations that are “contrary to the beliefs” of the parent or guardian. It’s quite clear and explicit, and it does not differentiate between nonmedical exemptions based on religion and nonmedical exemptions not based on religious beliefs.

I hope it’s not necessary for pro-science advocates to go to court to force Brown to enforce the clear intent of the law, an intent that (rightly, in my opinion) does not differentiate between religious and secular reasons for not wanting to vaccinate.