The Mississippi Department of Health has approved nearly 1,800 religious vaccine exemptions as of Sept. 23, with the number of requests slowing in recent weeks.

In April, a federal judge ruled that parents can opt out of vaccinating their children for school on account of religious beliefs. U.S. District Judge Halil Sul Ozerden of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit, filed last year by parents who said the vaccination requirement violated their First Amendment rights.

Under the newly created process, which went into effect July 17, parents must complete the form on the Mississippi Department of Health’s website and make an appointment with their county health department to submit it. At the appointment, parents are shown an educational video about vaccination and are informed that if an outbreak occurs, their child will not be able to attend school or day care until it is resolved. The form is then processed by the health department.

Prior to the court ruling, Mississippi led the nation in childhood vaccinations as one of six states without a religious exemption for vaccines. It’s unclear exactly what impact this new exemption will have, but researchers have generally found a decline in childhood vaccination rates when a religious or personal exemption is added.

Dr. Jana Shaw, a childhood vaccination researcher and professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said unvaccinated children are often clumped together in specific communities, not evenly distributed across the state, making it easier for them to “start and fuel outbreaks.”

Data from the first few weeks of exemption requests showed Jackson, George, Pike, Lincoln, and Madison counties had the highest number of parents submitting requests.

The Health Department has continued to emphasize the importance of childhood vaccinations and encouraged parents to vaccinate their children, including hosting a series of walk-in vaccination clinics at county health departments.

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.