Gov. Jim Justice kills Republican effort to grant vaccine exemptions to students at private and parochial schools

News & Politics

Republicans in the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill that would eliminate the vaccine requirements for students in virtual public schools and enable private schools and parochial schools to set their own policies. Requirements would, however, remain in place for students participating in sanctioned athletic events organized by the West Virginia Secondary School Athletics Commission.

While House Bill 5105 passed the House of Delegates in a 57-41 vote and then the state Senate in a March 20-12 vote, Gov. Jim Justice (R) killed it last week.

Justice indicated he was swayed by the “overwhelming majority” — not in the state legislature but in the Mountain State’s “medical community.”

The governor noted in his veto letter that medical professionals who reached out to him had suggested the legislation would “do irreparable harm by crippling childhood immunity to diseases such as mumps and measles. West Virginia historically has seen very few instances of these diseases, specifically because the vaccination requirements in this State are so strong.”

Children entering schools or state-regulated child care centers in West Virginia must be immunized against chickenpox, hepatitis-b, measles, meningitis, mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus, and whooping cough. The state does not currently provide a religious exemption.

“I have always and will always defend our freedoms as West Virginians and as Americans,” added Justice. “I hear how strongly people believe in one side or the other on this subject, and I respect all opinions. But I must follow the guidance of our medical experts on this subject. … Their wisdom should not be ignored–especially when it comes to the health and safety of our children.”

Clay Marsh, the vice president of West Virginia University who served as COVID-19 czar for the state during the pandemic, was among those who had Justice’s ear ahead of the veto, reported the Associated Press.

The ACLU of West Virginia also opposed the bill, stating, “Vaccines actually further civil liberties. They protect the most vulnerable in society – those with disabilities and fragile immune systems and those who are too young to get vaccinated.”

The legislature does not presently have the power to override Justice’s veto.

WCHS-TV noted that the veto has some parents fuming.

Krystle Perry, a Fayette County mother who removed her second-grade daughter from virtual school to avoid the mandated vaccinations, said, “That’s my choice. I birthed her.”

“I got a phone call a couple months ago stating that if she wasn’t up to date on her immunizations that she wasn’t allowed to attend anymore,” continued Perry. “To me, I mean, she’s not in public classes whatsoever. She’s behind a laptop.”

“I feel to me it’s religious exemptions why I don’t have her up to date on vaccines,” added Perry.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Laura Kimble (R), originally suggested the bill was about buttressing individual freedom of choice, reported the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

“When I found out that virtual public-school students also were required to have all of the mandated immunizations, I thought the absurdity in the policy was evident,” said Kimble. “That is how this bill came to be.”

“We acknowledge that we’re guaranteed the right to religious liberty, yet our West Virginia government has attempted to infringe on this right,” added Kimble. “I’m not anti-vaccine. I do believe, however, that the role of the government is not to give a false sense of security, but is to defend and protect individual rights.”

The reception of the veto appears to be mixed in Charleston.

Officials associated with the West Virginia Sate Medical Association are pleased with Justice’s decision, reported WOWK-TV.

“The governor looks at the data and the numbers,” said Dr. Lisa Costello, a pediatrician. “Preventable disease outbreaks can cost state governments millions of dollars. Further, they can disrupt daily activities by closing offices, schools, and childcare facilities.”

State Sen. Mike Moroney (R) underscored that historical context is important, stating, “Most diseases have been eradicated or so minimized that people don’t realize the rage that they went through the communities with, and the countries, and our states and countries, just the whole world.”

For critics of the veto, liberty appeared to be at issue contra public health.

“I’m big on parents having a choice when it comes to the decision they make for their children,” said Del. Chris Pritt (R). “A lot of parents, based on religion and other reasons, feel that they don’t need to vaccinate their children.”

Rep. Alex Mooney, a West Virginia Republican running against Justice in the U.S. Senate primary, suggested the veto was “[a]nother sign of Liberal @JimJusticeWV disregarding religious freedom & parental rights. He’s always supported longer shutdowns than even @JoeBiden. Once again, this is further proof that Justice is what he has been all long: a big government RINO.”

State Sen. Mike Stuart (R) noted on X that “‘IF’ there is an unfortunate veto of the minor immunization bill, it is but one small battle in the war for freedom. Next year there will be many more conservatives in the Legislature and next year’s bill won’t be so small. We will go for full religious exemptions.”

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