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Federal appeals court upholds Connecticut law that eliminated religious vaccination exemption

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
A 2021 Connecticut law eliminating a religious exemption for school vaccination requirements could end up before U.S. Supreme Court.

A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a 2021 Connecticut law that eliminated the state’s longstanding religious exemption from childhood immunization requirements for schools, colleges and day care facilities.

The decision comes about a year and a half after a lower court judge dismissed the lawsuit challenging the contentious law, which drew protests at the state Capitol.

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

The plaintiffs, We the Patriots USA Inc. and others, had argued that Connecticut violated religious freedom protections by removing the exemption. The 2021 law, they said, demonstrates a hostility to religious believers and jeopardizes their rights to medical freedom and child rearing.

“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.

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.

Connecticut law currently requires students to receive certain immunizations before enrolling in school, yet allows some medical exemptions. Students could seek religious exemptions as well prior to 2021, but lawmakers decided to end that after being concerned by an uptick in exemption requests coupled with a decline in vaccination rates in some schools.

The Connecticut General Assembly ultimately passed legislation that eliminated the exemption but grandfathered students in K-12 that had already received one.

Festa called the court's decision to return part of the lawsuit to the lower court for further consideration “a victory" for special needs children in the state. One of the plaintiffs argued that Connecticut's law denies her son a free and appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act by not allowing him a religious exemption.

While Festa said the plaintiffs, which also include three parents and the CT Freedom Alliance LLC, are hopeful the district court will determine special needs children cannot be excluded by opposing vaccinations based on religious belief.

Tong's office said it's confident that claim will be dismissed by the lower court.

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