Gretchen H. Thompson is not sending her three youngest children back to school next month because New York state has repealed their religious exemptions from school vaccination requirements.
Thompson refuses to vaccinate her kids. She will home-school them because the state’s vaccination law does not apply to home-schooled children.
She and her husband also plan to sell their home, quit their jobs and move to another state that allows unvaccinated kids to attend school if the family says shots violate their religious beliefs.
“We are changing everything,” Thompson said.
Her children are among about 26,000 kids statewide, 1,200 of them in Central New York, who have lost religious vaccination exemptions. The exemptions were repealed by a state law passed in June in response to the nation’s worst measles outbreak in decades.
Children can still obtain medical exemptions, but the state has made it harder to get them. New York is one of five states that has banned religious vaccination exemptions.
The new law says unvaccinated kids must be kicked out of school in September unless they get their first shot within the first 14 days of school and can document within the first 30 days of school they have appointments for follow-up doses. Schools face fines of up to $2,000 per student admitted in violation of the law.
Parents of kids who lose religious exemptions have three options: vaccinate their children, home-school them or move to another state that permits religious exemptions.
Opponents of the new law say the state did not give affected families enough time to figure out what to do. The courts have rejected requests by parents to temporarily block the new state law three times.
“Parents have houses to sell, jobs to quit, new jobs to find,” said Rita Palma, one of the founders of the New York chapter of Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccination organization led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “It is not so easy to make a life change in a couple months.”
Palma provided a copy of a letter Baldwinsville Superintendent Matthew J. McDonald wrote earlier this month to Acting Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman of Albany. He asked the judge to give educators and parents more time.
“I got in the business of education because I love children and will do anything to help them thrive and be successful,” McDonald wrote. “Now I am put in a position to turn some students away due to this new law.”
McDonald did not return phone calls from Syracuse.com. Palma said McDonald is one of several school officials who wrote to Hartman. Last week the judge turned down a request by parents for a preliminary injunction.
Hartman acknowledged in a ruling the new law may disrupt families who have lost religious exemptions. But she cited a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which said, “The right to practice religion does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
Thompson has five children, ranging in age from 4 to 24. Her youngest three attended Oswego Christian Community School in Oswego that had an enrollment of 70 students last year, according to the state Education Department. The school is owned by New Covenant Church.
Thompson said she knows two other families who lost religious exemptions and are also pulling their kids out of the school over the vaccination issue. Dick Beaumont, pastor of New Covenant, confirmed that some families other than the Thompsons are leaving the school, but said he was not sure how many.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m an ex-vaxxer,” Thompson said. She, her husband and their oldest sons, who attended public school, are fully vaccinated. Her 6-year-old twins and 4-year-old have never been vaccinated.
She began questioning the safety of vaccines eight years ago when her oldest son got sick after getting an HPV vaccination. She said he developed autoimmune encephalitis, a rare type of brain inflammation that happens when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells. He was hospitalized 31 days.
The cause of most cases of this rare disorder is unknown, according to the Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance, a nonprofit patients group. Some cases are triggered by cancer or exposure to common bacteria and viruses, the group says.
The World Health Organization estimates vaccinations prevented at least 10 million deaths worldwide between 2010 and 2015.
While some people object to vaccinations on religious grounds, the Catholic church and many other religious denominations endorse vaccine use.
Thompson said her opposition to vaccine is just one element of her family’s natural lifestyle.
She only feeds her children organic products because she doesn’t want them eating food that contains toxins. Her family raises chickens, has its own cow and buys organic beef.
“It’s completely my responsibility what goes into these children who are a gift from God,” she said.
Thompson is a dental hygienist and her husband, Robert, is a mechanic for UPS. She is cutting back her work schedule from five days a week to three so she will have more time for home-schooling. She’s hired a sitter to care for her youngest three children when she’s working. She estimates her family will pay the sitter about $11,000 annually, the same amount it paid for their tuition in private school.
She views home-schooling as a short-term solution. She wants her children to be educated in a traditional school setting. “I never thought in a million years I would home school,” she said.
The Thompsons want to leave the state within a year. They already have a potential buyer lined up for their house. They are considering moving to Texas, which allows families to opt out of vaccines for personal or moral beliefs.
Thompson said her husband is willing to quit his job here and seek another one out of state, even if it results in a reduction in pay and benefits. She estimates it will cost her $1,400 to get relicensed as a dental hygienist in another state.
“We are prepared to sell everything we have and move out of state so that our healthy children can attend school without vaccines,” she said.