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RICHMOND — Amid a steady increase in coronavirus cases throughout the state, two local Republican legislators are sponsoring bills to allow religious exemptions for vaccinations during public health emergencies.

Sen. Mark J. Peake, R-Lynchburg, filed SB 1117 to amend a related 2006 bill and would allow parents and guardians to refuse vaccinations for their children during emergencies or epidemics. The bill would apply to the current coronavirus pandemic and any future public health crises, Peake said.

 “There’s no telling what’s coming down the road, so it would apply to any Virginia-pharma health mandated vaccination for any pandemic, he said. “I just want to preserve the first amendment religious freedom, in all cases.” 

Gov. Ralph Northam has not imposed a statewide coronavirus vaccine mandate for Virginia, but public school systems and independent employers may require the vaccination in the future. In a Jan. 6 press release, Northam’s office announced that k-12 teachers and child care workers would be among the next priority groups to receive vaccinations. 

Del. Mark L. Cole, R-Fredericksburg, sponsored HB5070, which would have provided similar religious exemptions. It was tabled by the Health, Welfare and Institutions committee a week after it was introduced.


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“I believe the vast majority of people, including myself, will take the vaccine” Cole wrote in an email. “That should be sufficient to provide herd immunity without compelling people to receive it.”

Peake echoed Cole’s sentiment

“I don’t think it [the bill] would have much of an impact, to my knowledge, on prolonging the pandemic,” he said. “There are normally not a whole lot of groups that have religious exemptions for these types of things, so I don’t think it would be a large portion of the population that would be requesting a religious exemption now.”

Religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions have contributed to a growing number of outbreaks. Recently, a decline in measles vaccinations caused a resurgence of the disease, according to an advisory published on the National Institute of Health’s website.

There have been more than 387,000 coronavirus cases in Virginia and over 5,000 deaths with cases on a steady incline since late December, according to the Virginia Department of Public Health website

In a Jan. 4 tweet, the Virginia Department of Public Health urged people to get vaccinated for the coronavirus when it’s available to them, stating, “vaccines are one of many important tools to help us stop this pandemic.”

Peake represents a portion of central Virginia including parts of Lynchburg, Louisa, and all of Amherst, Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland and Prince Edward Counties.

Cole represents parts of Fauquier, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties and part of the city of Fredericksburg.


This story was produced by the University of Richmond bureau of the Capital News Service. You can find more UR coverage here, as well as through Twitter (@urjournalism) and Tumblr (http://urjournalism.tumblr.com/). For questions about coverage, email tmullen@richmond.edu