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Health

Senate Votes To Repeal Connecticut's Religious Exemption To Mandatory Vaccinations

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Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
Protesters shout “My child, my choice” at the Connecticut state Capitol on Tuesday.";s:

A measure repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations is headed for Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk, after the Senate gave final passage to the bill in an evening vote Tuesday over the objections of several Republicans and thousands of protesters who gathered outside the state Capitol.

Senators voted 22 to 14 in favor of the proposal after nine hours of debate. Gov. Ned Lamont has pledged to sign the bill, which would not force children to be inoculated but would bar students who refuse vaccines on religious grounds from attending public and private schools in Connecticut.

“This proposed legislation is bad policy, it is poorly devised, and it will have significant and far-reaching negative consequences,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott. “Most importantly, it is fundamentally wrong, immoral, and I would say even anti-American.”

Republicans argued that state data on school vaccinations was flawed, fumed over the decision to run the bill even though people weren’t given the chance to speak at an in-person public hearing (it was held online due to the pandemic), and complained that the hearing was cut off after 24 straight hours, leaving more than 1,500 people unable to remark on the legislation. They also worried for parents who would now have to home-school their children.

The proposal would erase the state’s religious exemption beginning on Sept. 1, 2022. Children in pre-kindergarten, day care or those new to the school system would no longer be able to claim the exemption starting that day. Children who are in kindergarten through 12th grade would still qualify for the remainder of their academic careers.

The bill also requires the state’s public health commissioner to release school-by-school immunization data; helps parents who cannot afford vaccines for their children by mandating that cities and towns cover the expense; and creates a board that will review Connecticut’s vaccine program and issue recommendations.

The proposal cleared the House last week.

Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican, questioned why Democrats were rushing to pass the bill if thousands of children were being allowed to continue claiming the exemption for the remainder of their schooling. As of the 2019-20 school year, the most recent data available, 8,328 students elected the exemption, up from 7,782 in 2018-19 and 7,042 in 2017-18.

“One of the compelling reasons that we have heard over and over again is the incredible sense of a medical emergency,” Hwang said. “And what we have here is a loophole already in this current legislation that undermines the very intense and powerful effect of what is being articulated. We are creating a distinct separation, and in some cases, segregation within people’s own families.”

Democrats overwhelmingly backed the bill, with many saying that the growing number of students claiming the religious exemption puts at risk immunosuppressed children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. Some are allergic to shots; others are medically compromised.

In 2019-20, 1,156 children claimed a medical exemption.

“This is about the 10-year-old-student who perhaps has an autoimmune deficiency and can’t get vaccinated. That kid faces challenges every day that none of us in this chamber could possibly imagine,” said Sen. Will Haskell, a Westport Democrat. “Surely, it’s our job to make sure that kid can go to school safely. In order for that to happen, his classmates need to be vaccinated against measles and mumps and rubella; it is their herd immunity … that keeps that student safe.

“If we don’t stand up for that student – and if we don’t do it today, in the midst of a global pandemic, then who will and when?”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, cited the growing number of children claiming the exemption as a reason for urgency.

“Our primary constituency here is the large number of immunosuppressed and immunocompromised children for whom it is only safe to go to school if they can count on the immunity of their classmates, the herd immunity of those schools,” he said, adding: “Children are not the property, the possession or the chattel of parents or guardians. They have independent rights apart from those of their parents.”

If the bill is signed into law, Connecticut would become the sixth state without a religious exemption. New York, Maine, Mississippi, West Virginia and California do not have the vaccine exemption; 45 states and Washington, D.C. do, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

‘Before the ink is dry, we plan on filing’

Brian Festa, a founder of CT Freedom Alliance, a group opposed to the religious exemption bill, said his organization, along with a national group known as We the Patriots USA and some parents of school-aged children, would swiftly file lawsuits challenging the new law as soon as it’s signed by Lamont. He anticipates legal challenges will be filed in both the state and federal courts.

“Before the ink is dry, we plan on filing” the lawsuits, he said. “It’s important because there are thousands of children in Connecticut who are going to be harmed by this. We can’t even wait a day to defend their constitutional right to an education.”

“Litigation generally takes a long time,” Festa added. “This is not something that courts are going to decide in a month, probably not even in a year. So the longer we wait, the longer the kids wait.”

In neighboring New York, where lawmakers voted to repeal the religious exemption in 2019, two lawsuits challenging the decision were dismissed. In one, more than 50 families argued that the law violated their religious freedom rights, and they sought a preliminary injunction to stop it from taking effect while the issue wound its way through court, the Times Union reported. An Albany judge tossed the case. In another, an Amish family charged that the law breached Amish religious rights protected by the state constitution, the Democrat and Chronicle reported. A judge upheld the vaccination law.

A third lawsuit was filed last July and is pending.

Despite the outcomes in New York, Festa said, he and others are undeterred.

“Obviously, it is disappointing that those lawsuits haven’t, at this point, yielded positive results,” he said. “But it doesn’t deter us. We have our own strategy that is in some ways going to be distinct from what they’ve done.

“We’ve learned from them. We talk to attorneys in other states who have been working on these lawsuits, and we’re aware of what has worked and what hasn’t.”

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