Lawmakers want to revisit vaccination religious exemptions
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A top leader of the Connecticut General Assembly and some of his fellow Democrats want their colleagues to consider eliminating a provision that allows parents and guardians who enroll their children in public schools to exempt them from immunizations for religious reasons. They are concerned that the exemption is being abused.
The proposal has alarmed some parents and guardians, dozens of whom gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to make it clear that they believe such a move would infringe on their rights.
“The government has ... zero rights to ask you what your religion is, or for you to explain it, for you to belong to a certain religion. This is my religion and that’s it. I don’t have to explain it or defend it to anybody,” said Shannon Gamache of Ashford, who chose not to have her son fully vaccinated after he experienced what she believes were adverse side effects from a vaccine. She is Christian.
Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said lawmakers aren’t trying to force people to vaccinate their children and violate their religious beliefs. Rather, he said they wouldn’t be allowed to enroll in public schools and put other children at risk.
“It’s not fair to that child with a compromise immune system to have to go to school with those children,” he said. Ritter wants lawmakers to vote on legislation removing the exemption sometime within the next 12 months, which means it could be during this legislative session or the next. He noted that Mississippi, West Virginia and California don’t allow religious exemptions.
When he was co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, Ritter raised concerns about the growing number of kindergarten-age children entering Connecticut public schools without being vaccinated. He successfully pushed in 2015 for a change in state law that required parents and guardians who submit statements that immunizations violate their child’s religious beliefs to have them “acknowledged” annually by a school nurse, notary public, justice of the peace or other officials.
He said Wednesday that the new system was not working and school nurses in particular have been reluctant to sign off on these religious exemption statements, which he believes are sought by some families for philosophical reasons, rather than religion.
According to a 2017-18 survey conducted by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, 639 kindergarten students in public schools had exemptions from six vaccines for religious reasons, while 119 had them for medical reasons. Overall, there’s 98.9 percent compliance with the immunization requirement to enroll in public school. A 2012-13 survey showed 421 exemptions for religious reasons and 118 for medical reasons among kindergarten students in public school.
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who joined Ritter and Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, at Wednesday’s news conference, said he’s concerned about the uptick in measles cases across the U.S., including an outbreak of about 70 people in the Pacific Northwest. DPH confirmed a second case of measles last month in Connecticut. Both cases involved adults.
“We know that year over year, double-digit growth in non-vaccinated children is growing in our state,” Elliott said. “The issue for us is, do we want to wait until we have deaths and large widespread outbreaks or do we want to solve the problem before it gets to Connecticut.”
But Ariana Rawls of Stratford, who is Jewish, said what the lawmakers want to do is an affront to the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom.
“They are going after our religious beliefs that are tied to medical choice,” she said. “It’s my body and my child’s body.”
This story has been updated to correct the title of House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, who was misidentified as House Speaker.