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Students in California granted religious exemption from mandatory Covid vaccination

by Donna Birrell

Students in California can be granted exemption on religious grounds from getting a mandatory Covid vaccination. 

Earlier this month, California became the first US state to announce that the Covid-19 vaccine would be mandatory for all school students in the region.

All children who attend school in California in person will be required to have the vaccination and the law could be enforced as early as January.

Religious and medical exemptions will be allowed, but the rules for how the state would apply them have not been written yet.

Students between the ages of 12 and 18 are set to be among the first to be required to get vaccinated under the mandate, following full approval of the vaccine from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Students younger than 12 would later be phased in.

The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only vaccine approved for children over the age of 12 in California.

The requirement for mandatory vaccinations for students has caused concern among some parents, with some threatening to keep their children away from school.

Speaking to ABC News one parent, Babe Prieto said:

"We know that if our children stay home from school that will impact the funding that schools will get for that day, and we want them to know that we're serious about not being forced to vaccinate our children."

However, the Los Angeles Times says that the student vaccination mandate has large support among parents and educators. United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents more than 30,000 teachers, nurses, counsellors, and librarians, has endorsed a mandate for employees and students.

Parents in support of the vaccine say students are already required to get immunized for ten other serious diseases to attend school in California, and they believe this is no different.
Speaking to ABC News, Dr. Jesus Rodriguez said:

"This vaccine is no different than other vaccines in terms that it helps our bodies make antibodies against the thing we're trying to fight. It's not changing our body in any way. It's not doing anything different in terms of just making antibodies."

Announcing the legislation at the beginning of October, the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, said: 

"The state already requires that students are vaccinated against viruses that cause measles, mumps, and rubella - there's no reason why we wouldn't do the same for COVID-19. Today's measure, just like our first-in-the-nation school masking and staff vaccination requirements, is about protecting our children and school staff, and keeping them in the classroom." 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that while requests for medical exemptions in US schools remain low (around 0.3 per cent), non-medical exemptions (including religious and personal belief exemptions) have seen a 57 per cent increase in the last decade.

Dr. Joshua Williams, from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told ABC News that despite a decrease in religiosity among Americans, there has been an increase in religious exemption requests for vaccination, implying that these exemptions are "no longer serving their original purpose".

Professor Ellen Wright Clayton from the Vanderbilt University Law School, believes that schools should take a stand against religious exemptions in the interest of protecting public health:

"The fact of the matter is, parents are not entitled, for any reason, to expose other people's children or other people to Covid 19 for religious reasons." 

California currently has the lowest coronavirus case rate in the US, but some say they're concerned that by offering too many exemptions, that status could be undermined. 

The Guardian reports that in Sacramento, a megachurch pastor has been offering religious exemption letters to all who want them. Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Christian church, says he is not anti-vaccine, but that "the vaccine poses a morally compromising situation for many people of faith". 

It's reported that the state's Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel is also offering letter templates to claim a religious exemption.

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