Tong: No constitutional barrier to removing state’s religious exemption on vaccines
A plan by a group of Democratic lawmakers to wipe out the state’s religious exemption on vaccines does not violate the constitution, Attorney General William Tong wrote in an opinion issued Monday.
But whether the General Assembly will take up the hot-button issue of repealing the provision is still up in the air.
“The law is clear that the state of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption … in accordance with its well-settled power to protect public safety and health,” Tong wrote.
House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, sought the opinion after declaring that he wanted to eliminate the religious waiver, citing concerns for school-aged children who cannot receive vaccinations because of immunodeficiencies. The effort comes amid a national measles outbreak, including three cases in Connecticut.
There is currently no bill to repeal the exemption, but Ritter said legislation may be amended this year to include a reversal. If not, he said, he will look to introduce a measure in 2020.
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.
California, Mississippi and West Virginia have eliminated their religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccine mandates. Tong noted that the Mississippi Supreme Court had struck down a state exemption based on religious beliefs, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld West Virginia’s decision to get rid of its religious exclusion.
The attorney general declined to weigh in on whether lawmakers should remove the exemption. “That is a policy decision entrusted exclusively to the judgment of the legislature and the governor,” he said.
A spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday.
Data released Friday by the state Department of Public Health show a slew of schools with kindergarten immunization rates below the 95 percent threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the first-ever school-by-school assessment of child vaccination rate released by the state.
The overall immunization rate of Connecticut school children is more than 98 percent, but the data show some schools with high rates of unvaccinated children, some exempted for either medical or religious reasons and others unexplained. More than three dozen schools reported more than five percent of their students claimed exemptions, while the DPH identified nearly 100 schools where less than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella.
The revelations alarmed legislative leaders and Lamont, who called the assessment “startling” and said the lower rates must be addressed, though he did not elaborate.
Ritter said Monday that he and other lawmakers are reviewing Tong’s opinion and would decide soon whether to press for an end to the religious exemption this year. The legislative session ends June 5.
“Now that we have both the data and the attorney general’s opinion, we’ll have more conversations about what the next steps are,” he said. “The general feeling I’m hearing from people is that if the response of the legislature is to shrug its shoulders and say, ‘Well, there are only a couple of cases of measles in Connecticut,’ we are out of touch.
“Shrugging your shoulders is not an adequate response to this issue and I don’t think that’s what the public expects of us.”
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