Gov. Greg Gianforte, left, and Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Charlie Brereton, right, announcing proposed changes to childcare regulations on Friday, Nov. 4. Courtesy photo.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services is declining to enforce vaccination requirements for licensed childcare facilities that grant religious exemptions to participants.

The decision comes three months after the department proposed a formal rule to loosen religious exemption standards for childcare settings, a policy that was opposed by public health advocates and eventually blocked from going into effect by lawmakers on the health and human services interim committee until it could be reconsidered during the upcoming legislative session. 

According to a letter dated Oct. 31, DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton said the agency would be “exercising its discretion” by not pursuing “negative licensing actions” against childcare facilities that “will not enforce immunization requirements against individuals/families who attest to objection to such requirements on the basis of religious belief.”

The letter said the new policy is effective immediately and will remain in place until further notice.

In a statement Friday, health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said current childcare licensing rules don’t align with Senate Bill 215, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last year.

“Thus, while DPHHS continues its work to permanently amend impacted rules and comply with RFRA, it is exercising its discretion in how it enforces the immunization requirements at child care facilities,” the department’s statement said. “We are committed to ensuring that these families have viable child care options in accordance with state and federal law.”

Currently, childcare participants are required to receive scheduled doses of vaccines against measles, rubella, mumps, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, varicella, hepatitis B, pneumococcal, and the bacteria Haemophilus influenza type B, or Hib. 

While medical exemptions to vaccines are allowed generally, the health department rules currently permit religious exemptions only for Hib, the infectious bacteria. Under its new approach detailed in the Oct. 31 letter, the health department will allow childcare facilities to accept religious vaccine exemptions to any vaccine.

That policy also appeared among a long list of proposed changes to childcare regulations that Gianforte and Brereton announced on Friday. Other reforms include a rule to expand the child-to-staff ratio for children 5 and older to 20:1, up from the current ratio of 14:1, and to increase the maximum group size for that age range to 40 from 32. 

If adopted, the proposed rule changes released Friday would formalize the department’s Oct. 31 decision to more broadly allow religious exemption requests.

Dr. Tsun Sheng N. Ku, an infectious disease expert in Billings, criticized the department’s letter on Twitter Thursday.

“Is DPHHS losing sight of the importance of vaccination [in] protecting the health of our children? Does it make sense to sacrifice many children’s health to ensure the religious freedom of a small number of parents?” Ku said. “Many parents depend on child care centers so they can go to work without having to worry about the safety of their children. If they don’t feel that the only child care center available to them is safe, what will those parents do?”

A public comment hearing on the proposed changes to childcare rules will be held Nov. 28 at 9:00 via videoconferencing. Written public comment can be submitted to the health department until 5 p.m. on Dec. 2.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.