The state Department of Public Health and Human Services refuses to enforce vaccination requirements for licensed child care centers that grant religious exemptions to participants.
The decision comes three months after the department proposed a formal rule to loosen religious exemption standards for daycares, a policy that was disputed by public health advocates and eventually blocked from entering into force by lawmakers on the interim health and human services committee until it can be reconsidered in the next legislative session.
According to a letter dated Oct. 31, DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton said the agency would “exercise its discretion” in not pursuing “negative licensing actions” against child care centers that “fail to enforce requirements.” of vaccination against individuals/families who attest to objection to these requirements on the basis of religious belief.
The letter states that the new policy is effective immediately and will remain in place until further notice.
In a statement Friday, Health Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said the current child care licensing rules do not align with Senate Bill 215, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last year.
“Thus, as the DPHHS continues its work to permanently modify the relevant rules and comply with the RFRA, it exercises its discretion in how it enforces vaccination requirements in child care centers,” the department statement reads. . “We are committed to ensuring that these families have viable child care options in accordance with state and federal law.”
Currently, child care participants are required to receive scheduled doses of vaccines against measles, rubella, mumps, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, varicella, hepatitis B, pneumococcal and Haemophilus influenza type B or Hib bacteria.
While medical exemptions to vaccines are generally allowed, health department rules currently only allow religious exemptions for Hib, the infectious bacteria. As part of its new approach detailed in the Oct. 31 letter, the Health Department will allow child care facilities to accept religious vaccine exemptions for any vaccine.
This policy was also among a long list of proposed changes to childcare regulations than Gianforte and Brereton announcement Friday. Other reforms include a rule to extend the child-to-staff ratio for children aged 5 and over to 20:1, from the current ratio of 14:1, and to increase the maximum party size for this age bracket. age from 32 to 40.
If passed, the proposed rule changes released Friday would formalize the department’s Oct. 31 decision to allow religious exemption requests more broadly.
Dr. Tsun Sheng N. Ku, an infectious disease expert at Billings, criticized the department’s letter on Twitter Thursday.
“Is the DPHHS losing sight of the importance of vaccination [in] protect the health of our children? Does it make sense to sacrifice the health of many children to ensure the religious freedom of a small number of parents? Ku said. “Many parents depend on daycare so they can go to work without having to worry about the safety of their children. If they feel that the only child care available to them is safe, what will these parents do?
A hearing for public comments on proposed changes to child custody rules will take place on November 28 at 9 a.m. via videoconference. Written public comments can be submitted to the health department until 5 p.m. on December 2.