Fact check: California doesn’t have personal belief exemption for COVID-19 vaccination in schools

The claim: California has a personal belief exemption for new vaccine requirements in schools

As the United States lags behind the Biden administration’s goal to get 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by July 4, anti-vaccine advocates on social media are sharing tactics for getting around vaccination requirements.

Denise Aguilar is an outspoken critic of vaccines and the founder of a woman-oriented survivalist group called Mamalitia. In a June 21 Instagram post, she said her home state of California has a loophole for parents who want to avoid getting their children vaccinated against the coronavirus, influenza and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines.

“California has a personal belief exemption to any NEW vaccine added to the schedule after June 2015 for public & private daycare, preschool & k-12,” says text in the image, which has more than 6,400 likes.

As evidence, the post cites “CA SB277 Sec. 3. Section 120338.” The law, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed in June 2015, eliminated personal belief exemptions that allowed parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.

But the post overreaches on the impact of this law. 

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For one, coronavirus, influenza and HPV vaccines are not required in California public and private schools, so no personal belief exemption is needed to avoid them.

And the vaccine waiver referenced here would only apply if the state health department added the requirement — something that’s never happened before. Vaccine law experts say the California Legislature, not the health department, has always decided which vaccines to require in schools, meaning lawmakers would decide whether to allow personal belief exemptions for future vaccine requirements.

No personal belief exemptions

California is one of only a handful of states that offers no non-medical exemptions for existing school vaccination requirements. That policy traces back to the law cited in Aguilar’s Instagram post.

In 2015, lawmakers got rid of personal belief exemptions for a list of 10 vaccinations required for children in both public and private schools. Prior to that, parents could get out of vaccinating their children by filling out a form, signed by a health care provider, saying vaccines violated their personal beliefs. Under the new law, parents could still provide a valid medical exemption or choose to home-school their children.

Included on the list of mandatory vaccines are shots for diseases like diphtheria, hepatitis B and tetanus. The coronavirus, influenza and HPV vaccines are not currently required for school children in California.

Aguilar and Tara Thornton, co-founders of the anti-vaccine advocacy group Freedom Angels, told USA TODAY in an email that, if the state were to require those vaccines, a personal belief exemption would apply. 

Indira Cisneron holds her son German Vazquez while waiting to get her first COVID-19 vaccine shot as her other son Gabriel Vasquez, left, 13, waits in southwest Detroit. (Photo: Ryan Garza, AP)

“The personal belief exemption is available for any vaccine added to the schedule after 2015 beyond the 10 listed in the bill text,” they wrote.

As evidence, Aguila and Thornton cited the following passage of the 2015 bill: 

“This bill would eliminate the exemption from existing specified immunization requirements based upon personal beliefs, but would allow exemption from future immunization requirements deemed appropriate by the State Department of Public Health for either medical reasons or personal beliefs.”

That provision made it into state law. But vaccine law experts say the clause, which amended the state’s existing Health and Safety Code, doesn’t mean what anti-vaccine advocates say it means.

“Misinformation sources took this section, and read it to say ‘every new vaccine needs a personal belief exemption (PBE).’ But that only applies if the Department of Health added the vaccine, which never happened,” Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California-San Francisco, told USA TODAY in an email.

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The existing vaccine requirements for school children in California were passed by the state Legislature — not the health department. Reiss said that, if the state were to require vaccination against COVID-19 or other diseases, it would probably go through a similar process. Lawmakers could then decide whether they wanted to include a personal belief exemption, but that’s not as certain as Aguilar’s post makes it sound.

USA TODAY reached out to the California Department of Public Health for comment, but it did not provide one on the record.

Our rating: Partly false

The claim that California has a personal belief exemption for new vaccine requirements in schools is PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. State law does reference this, but vaccine law experts say the waiver only is required if the state health department adds the vaccination requirements itself, which the department has never done. If California were to require a new vaccines in schools for COVID-19 or anything else, it would likely go through the Legislature, which woulddecide whether to include a personal belief exemption.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Denise Aguilar, June 21, Instagram
  • USA TODAY, June 22, Biden administration says it won’t make 70% COVID-19 vaccine goal. What we know
  • EdSource, June 20, 2019, Quick Guide: What schools and parents need to know about California’s vaccination law
  • National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed June 23, States With Religious and Philosophical Exemptions From School Immunization Requirements
  • California Legislative Information, accessed June 23, SB-277 Public health: vaccinations.(2015-2016)
  • Dorit Reiss, June 23, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • California Legislative Information, accessed June 23, Health and Safety Code
  • California Department of Education, accessed June 23, Immunization Requirements
  • Contra Costa Health Services, accessed June 23, School & Childcare Requirements for Immunizations
  • The New York Times, March 26, Antivaccination Activists Are Growing Force at Virus Protests
  • The Sacramento Bee, May 27, ‘We stormed the Capitol.’ California Mamalitia founder boasted of insurrection activity
  • Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2015, California Legislature passes mandatory vaccination bill

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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