MONTPELIER — Parents in America's least devout state may be forced to find religion if they want to exempt their childen from getting vaccinated.
Vermont earlier this year became the first state to remove a philosophical exemption allowing parents to skip the immunizations required to enroll in school, but kept the religious exemption in place.
And although some states require evidence — a statement of religious beliefs, for instance — to support the claim that a child should be exempt for religious reasons, Vermont requires only checking a box on a form next to the word ''religious.''
''The vast majority who used the philosophical exemption are planning to or are being forced to use the religious exemption,'' said Jennifer Stella, president of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice.
Vermont, which historically has had one of the country's lowest rates of students fully compliant with the recommended vaccination schedule, is the first state to preserve the religious exemption while doing away with the philosophical one, according to research complied by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Vaccine Information Center. Earlier this summer, California joined West Virginia and Mississippi as the only states without any personal belief exemption.
Because Vermont is first down this particular path, there is no answer to the question of whether states see a newfound interest in religion upon removing the philosophical exemption. But Shawn Venner and Aedan Scribner, who are raising their 8-month-old daughter, Zelda, in Cabot, said the issue may spark a revival.
''I grew up here in Cabot, and would love my daughter to be able to go to the same school I did,'' said Scribner. ''But to get her into that school I'm going to have to do something like convert religiously.''
The couple said they are not opposed to all vaccines for their daughter, but strongly support choice in the matter.
There has been talk among friends of starting a new religion, Venner said, ''a religion that says we'll pretty much have a choice.''
As it stands, Vermont is not a hotbed of religious fervor. A study released in May by the Pew Research Center found that 37 percent of Vermonters described themselves as ''unaffiliated'' with any religion — the highest in the country. Time magazine reported last year on poll results from the Gallup organization in which 22 percent of Vermonters — the lowest in the country — described themselves as ''very religious.''
Four percent of Vermont's schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade took advantage of the philosophical exemption last year, according to state figures. Only 0.2 percent used the religious exemption.
Christine Finley, immunization program manager for the state Health Department, said the department will launch a public education campaign this winter to ensure parents are aware that the philosophical exemption will disappear effective July 1, giving families time to schedule the needed doctors' appointments for children to get caught up on their shots.
Schools and child-care centers ''will be sending out notices to families that this is coming,'' Finley said. ''This is the new law, and this is what we need to be doing.''
School nurses are on the front lines of Vermont's efforts to get nearly all kids fully immunized. Several said they expect some families that do not want their children fully vaccinated may simply switch to the religious exemption.
Such a switch would seem suspicious because of the timing, said Claire Molner, nurse at the Proctor Junior/Senior High School. Some families object not to all, but to one or some vaccines, she noted.
But Molner said nurses with whom she has spoken don't want to be placed in a position in which they are asked to judge the sincerity of someone's religious belief.
''I don't think I can sit there and be the arbiter of somebody's faith,'' Molner said.