Education group: Repeal the religious exemption from vaccination

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The director of a state education reform group says lawmakers should repeal the law that allows parents to decline for religious reasons vaccinating their  children before they attend public school.

Connecticut’s religious exemption from immunizing school children should be repealed and state Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell must be free to weigh in on the issue, the head of an education reform group said Monday.

Amy Dowell, director of Democrats for Education Reform CT, a local chapter of a national education advocacy group, is the latest official to take a position on the hot-button topic of rolling back Connecticut’s religious exemption from the requirement that all public school students be vaccinated.

Late last month, Republicans wrote a letter to the health commissioner urging her not to provide an opinion on the contentious issue. Their plea came after Democratic leaders in the House and Senate repeatedly asked Coleman-Mitchell to offer input.

“Religious exemptions are certainly an issue that has percolated all over the country. Everybody has recognized in the science community that this isn’t a way to protect students,” Dowell said in an interview. “We felt it was appropriate for us to go on the record and say we want the best for our children. This is not a safe circumstance for Connecticut students.”

DFER State Director Amy Dowell

She stopped short of demanding that Coleman-Mitchell take a position on the matter, but said the health chief should be free to weigh in.

“I don’t think she should be restricted from saying anything,” Dowell said.

Five Republican lawmakers, all of whom are members of the legislature’s conservative caucus, sent a letter to Coleman-Mitchell on July 30 asking that she refrain from offering an opinion on the push to repeal the religious exemption.

State Reps. Anne Dauphinais, Mike France, Craig Fishbein, Rick Hayes and David Wilson said it was “wholly inappropriate” for Democrats to seek Coleman-Mitchell’s input, and they called the issue “a question of constitutional and civil rights law” – not public health.

Democrats and the education reform advocacy group disagreed. While they have pledged to pursue a repeal regardless of Coleman-Mitchell’s response, Democratic leaders said the commissioner’s opinion is important.

“It just seems highly appropriate to have an opinion and analysis from that agency as a precursor to adopting legislation,” Senate Pro Tempore Martine Looney told The CT Mirror last month. “We’re not aware of any state that has adopted a ban on the religious exemption that was opposed in doing so by its Department of Public Health. In most cases, they supported it.”

Coleman-Mitchell so far has not issued a formal response to legislators. A spokesman for her department said last week that the issue is outside the agency’s purview, though he later added that the commissioner is working on her own reply to lawmakers.

Dowell is the most recent official to press for a repeal of the exemption. Last week, health representatives who gathered in Bridgeport to promote vaccines – including members of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Connecticut chapter and the Connecticut Academy of Family Physicians – also called for the provision to be erased.

Debate over the religious exemption has brewed for years, but intensified in May after the health department made public for the first time its school-by-school assessment of child immunization rates. The data from 2017-18 showed 102 schools where fewer than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials, who had planned on releasing the 2018-19 school year vaccination data, now say the issue is on hold. A Bristol couple is suing the state to block the distribution of those figures.

Jenna Carlesso: @JNCWriter 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.