The Connecticut House of Representatives on Monday was expected to pass a contentious bill that would end the state’s long-standing religious exemption from immunization requirements for schools, beginning with the 2022 school year.
Democratic House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford said there are enough votes in the Democratic-controlled chamber to pass the legislation by a “pretty overwhelming” margin. It’s the only bill on the House agenda for Monday and the debate was expected to run into the evening. If it passes, the bill will still need approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he’s ready to sign the bill into law.
“We have learned over and over again over the last six months that vaccinations work, vaccinations keep me safe, keep you safe, keep my classrooms safe and prevent replications of other variants out there,” he said. “So it’s really important.”
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The legislation stems from an uptick in the number of families in Connecticut who have sought a religious exemption from a host of childhood vaccinations, ultimately lowering the vaccination rate in as many as 100 schools at one point to under 95%. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Department of Public Health reported that an unvaccinated child from Fairfield County contracted measles while traveling internationally.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee, said “it’s reasonable to assume” many parents are using the state’s religious exemption because they’re concerned about vaccine efficacy and safety.
“It’s a belief, even if it’s not a specific religious one. But it’s a problem, a growing problem,” he said. “Vaccine hesitancy is becoming a direct and serious threat to the public health. It demands a proactive approach, not a reactive one... We need to act and act before we have an epidemic, an epidemic that we can prevent.”
Roughly 7,600 children in grades K-12 currently have religious exemptions in Connecticut.
This marks the third year in a row that lawmakers have considered removing the religious exemption for vaccinations. It’s been an emotionally charged debate. Both legislators who support and oppose the legislation have reported receiving hostile emails and social media posts over the issue.
This year, nearly 2,000 members of the public signed up in February to testify at an unprecedented 24-hour, virtual legislative hearing on the issue. Many, including parents concerned about the safety of vaccines, argued that stripping the exemption will infringe on their religious and parental rights and on their child’s right to a public education.
“I would never vaccinate my children. That is a hill I will die on,” testified Rachael Butova, a parent who said she in February she was considering moving out of the state because she keeps having to “defend” her First Amendment rights.
The strong feelings surrounding the issue were evident early in Monday’s House debate when lawmakers, on a bipartisan vote of 106-36, amended the bill to expand the number of children with existing religious exemptions who wouldn’t be affected. Instead of grandfathering the exemptions for children currently in seventh grade and older, the amended bill would grandfather children in kindergarten and older.
While proponents said the change was more fair to parents who’ve already sought exemptions for their children and help ensure those children aren’t pulled out of school, critics argued it was still discriminatory.
“We have 683 children in pre-K and daycare that are currently using the religious exemption - 683. So I ask in my mind, what are these parents supposed to do? How can you make a decision to support an amendment that will grandfather children kindergarten through high school and leave out those children,” asked Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott. “It’s discrimination. We are picking winners and losers.”
The legislation would take effect on Sept. 1, 2022, although Steinberg said a child would have to have a religious exemption in place prior to the governor signing the bill into law in order for their exemption to be grandfathered.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, predicted the legislation will be challenged in court if it ultimately becomes law, noting there’s a right to a public education under the state constitution.
He said lawmakers have heard from many parents who have had difficulty getting a medical exemption for their children from vaccinations and have had no choice but to get a religious exemption. Other lawmakers said the legislation is unfair to families who may have concerns about one vaccine their child is supposed to receive.
Connecticut is currently one of 45 states with a religious exemption from childhood vaccinations. The medical exemption will remain in place available for families.
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