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CT can keep law that ends religious exemptions for vaccines, federal appeals court rules

A syringe sits in a basket at a community health clinic in Fair Haven, Conn. moments before an RN administers a vaccine to a patient.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
A syringe sits in a basket at a community health clinic in Fair Haven, Conn. moments before an RN administers a vaccine to a patient.

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A federal appeals court has upheld a Connecticut law that eliminates religious exemptions for school vaccines.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, signed legislation in 2021 that barred people from seeking a religious exemption from immunization requirements at public and private schools, colleges and day cares.

The legislation was quickly challenged, with religious and medical freedom advocates arguing Connecticut’s new law was a violation of constitutional and parental rights.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in a decision issued Friday — upholding Connecticut's law.

The majority argued Connecticut’s law contains “no trace of hostility toward religion” and that there is generally not a right for parents to “direct how a public school teaches their child.”

The judges said Connecticut’s school vaccination requirements, which still allow for medical exemptions, are reasonable to protect public health and safety.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong praised the decision.

“This decision is a full and resounding affirmation of the constitutionality and legality of Connecticut’s vaccine requirements,” Tong said in a statement. “Vaccines save lives — this is a fact beyond dispute. The legislature acted responsibly and well within its authority to protect the health of Connecticut families and stop the spread of preventable disease.”

One of the plaintiffs, We the Patriots USA Inc., says it intends to challenge the decision.

“We fully intend to seek review of this decision in the United States Supreme Court, to obtain equal justice for all children — not only in Connecticut, but in every state in the nation,” Brian Festa, co-founder and vice president of We the Patriots USA Inc., said in a statement.

He said his group, which focuses on religious and medical freedom, parental rights and other matters, disagrees with the court's conclusion that removing the exemption does not violate religious freedom under the First Amendment or the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Connecticut law requires students receive certain immunizations before enrolling in school.

Prior to 2021, students could apply for medical or religious exemptions to that requirement. The 2021 legislation, “P.A. 21-6,” eliminated the religious exemption, but grandfathered students in kindergarten through grade 12 who had already received such exemptions.

In its decision, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit noted that “only one court — state or federal, trial or appellate — has ever found plausible a claim of a constitutional defect in a state’s school vaccination mandate on account of the absence or repeal of a religious exemption.”

“We decline to disturb this nearly unanimous consensus,” it concluded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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