The Connecticut state legislature’s public health committee reintroduced a bill that would eliminate the religious exemption for school-age children’s vaccines last week.

The bill — which has been proposed in prior legislative sessions — preserves medical exemptions to vaccines and gives doctors the discretion to determine which students are eligible for a medical exemption. Currently, Connecticut is one of 45 states and Washington, D.C. that has a religious exemption for vaccines.

Av Harris, the director of communications and public relations at the Connecticut Department for Public Health expressed his support for efforts to increase immunization. He stressed the potential dangers of declining vaccination rates for Connecticut schoolchildren in particular.

“Declining immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella and pockets of under-immunization in Connecticut schools present a danger to public health,” Harris told the News. “Children are entitled to learn in environments free of risk from dangerous viruses that are preventable through vaccination.”

There are more than 100 schools in Connecticut that have immunization levels below 95 percent, which is considered the federal “blanket immunity level,” according to an October press release from the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Both Governor Ned Lamont and the State Health Commissioner stressed the particular danger this issue poses on children with weaker immune systems and pushed for legislative action on raising vaccination rates.

According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, religious exemptions to vaccination in Connecticut increased by 25 percent between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 school year. This is the largest single year increase in religious exemptions since the Department of Public Health started compiling the data a decade ago. Data released in October by the CDC shows that Connecticut’s rate for nonmedical exemptions for kindergarteners was higher than the national average.

Despite the bill receiving general support from the legislature, several representatives have spoken out against it. Rep. Jack Hennessy, the sole member of the House Democrats who opposes the bill, said in a phone interview with the News that “[the bill] is a horrible infringement on religious freedom and first amendment rights.”

“I think it’s very unfortunate that Democrats are doing the bidding for the pharmaceutical industry,” he said. “What our state government’s doing is basically advocating control over parents’ discretion to make important decisions over their children’s lives.”

The Connecticut Freedom Alliance is one of the key groups lobbying against the bill. According to their website, the CFA is “a coalition of parents, attorneys, legislators, doctors, scientists and activists who are committed to preserving and expanding individual rights and freedoms in Connecticut.”

“In one fell swoop, this legislation would obliterate the religious liberties of hundreds of thousands of CT schoolchildren,” a CFA spokesperson wrote in an email to the News.

In December, a bipartisan group of legislators considered limiting the scope of this bill so that it would only apply to new public and private school children in Connecticut. Unvaccinated students with religious exemptions would be permitted to stay in school.

A public hearing on the bill is set to occur at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Wednesday, two weeks into the legislative session.

Ella Goldblum | ella.goldblum@yale.edu

  • Brian Westley

    “In one fell swoop, this legislation would obliterate the religious liberties of hundreds of thousands of CT schoolchildren,”

    No, they just wouldn’t be allowed to enter public school and possibly spread serious diseases.