Activists decried a proposal to eliminate the religious exemptions on vaccines at the state Capitol.
Activists, including Kate Kraemer of Griswold, left, decried a proposal to repeal the religious exemption on vaccines.

Lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, took aim Wednesday at the state’s religious exemption to vaccines, calling for a vote to repeal the provision and claiming that only a small but vocal group has argued to let it stand.

Ritter cited concerns for school-aged children who cannot receive vaccinations because of immunodeficiencies, and pointed to other states, like California, Mississippi and West Virginia, that have eliminated the exemption.

“Here is the situation we’re faced with: You have hundreds, if not thousands, of kids with compromised immune systems who are entering kindergarten with no knowledge of who sitting beside them has not been vaccinated,” he said. “Who is going to speak for those kids?

“You have the medical community coming to us saying, ‘Why do you have this exemption when other states are getting rid of it?’”

There is currently no bill before the legislature to repeal the exemption. Ritter said he hopes to introduce one within a year or amend other legislation to include it.

State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said a contingent of the skeptics are “vaccine averse” – they aren’t opposed to immunizations, but they need more information.

“It’s a very small percentage of people that are outspoken against eliminating the religious exemption,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re listening to the parents … whose children either have immunodeficiencies and cannot get vaccinated, or they just don’t want their children around other children who have not been vaccinated.”

The repeal would not force children to be immunized. It would prohibit children who are not vaccinated on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools.

Connecticut’s vaccination rate has traditionally been high. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent data available, more than 96 percent of the state’s kindergarteners were vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, Hepatitis A and B and varicella. Between 95 percent and 98.5 percent of seventh graders were immunized against those conditions and meningococcal disease.

Only about 2 percent of kindergarteners and 1 percent of seventh graders were not vaccinated for religious reasons. Others were exempt for medical reasons.

Despite that, state Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said people in her community are clamoring for the religious exemption to be removed.

Reps. Matthew Ritter, center, Josh Elliott, left, and Liz Linehan, right, call for an end to the religious exemption on vaccines.

“The overwhelming majority of people that I represent and around the state of Connecticut that have reached out to us said they agree with getting rid of the religious exemption,” she said.

As legislators discussed their position Wednesday, dozens of protesters gathered outside Ritter’s state Capitol office. They waved signs reading “Connecticut – the medical tyranny state” and “My Body. My Faith. My Choice.” and criticized lawmakers for shutting the public out of their press conference.

The Rev. Ernestine Holloway, a one-time Republican candidate for state representative, condemned Ritter for seeking to repeal the religious exemption. She said she has heard from Muslims, Pentecostals, Lutherans and Presbyterians who are worried about the move.

“People have a right to choose,” she said. “When we start taking away people’s right to choose, we’re no better than the Middle East. We become a controlled state.”

Kate Kraemer of Griswold, who has a 5-year-old daughter and is pregnant with her second child, said she felt ignored and belittled.

“It’s up to public health legislators to protect us and our children, even if we don’t have the same religious beliefs,” said Kraemer, who identified as Catholic.

Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, the deputy House minority leader, objected to Ritter’s proposal. The legislature’s Public Health Committee declined to raise a religious exemption bill for a public hearing, and Candelora said that should place the issue off limits until next year.

He said the decision to vaccinate children should rest with parents on consultation with their pediatricians, and the push in Connecticut and other states to curb exemptions is an overreaction to recent measles outbreaks.

“This hysteria of let’s rush to vaccinate everyone and everything, to me, is equated to the Salem Witch Trials and really misses the mark,” Candelora said.

CT Mirror Staff Writer Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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  1. This looks like the start of the government and the lawmakers in CT of taking away individual rights of the citizens. When will this stop? What other rights are they willing to take away ore determine you can or can not do? Sin tax is a perfect example. Isn’t sin a religious idea? So the democrats that vote for the increase in the “sin” tax on items are invoking a religious ideal on the populous. Is this another example of the government overreach?

    1. Actually, in CT a free public education is a right… as enshrined in CT’s state constitution: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

    2. That’s fine. But no school admittance. Home school your kids if not vaccinated. No public and the private schools won’t take either. Sick of all these government overreach folks helping. Move to Russia.

  2. I’ve studied the Bible since I was 8, majored in comparative religion in college and been a member, bible-study attender and now deacon of my church. I have never found any text that justifies refusing medical prophylaxis. “No, sorry, Jesus, don’t put those magic hands on me, I like my leprosy.” The one that comes to mind is the one about it being better to drown in the sea than cause a little one to get your kid’s disease.

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