Lawmakers are wasting no time seeking public input on a proposal to erase Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory vaccinations.
They have scheduled a public hearing on the plan for Feb. 19 – just two weeks into the legislative session. A draft of the bill is expected to be released next week.
The hearing will likely begin during the morning to allow hundreds of people the chance to speak. While legislators have not locked in a time, they said it probably would start around 10 a.m. in the state’s Legislative Office Building. A large crowd is expected.
“The desire of leadership is to move this through quickly and not get off on tangents,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-chairman of the Public Health Committee.
Steinberg said that while an early draft of the bill will be released prior to the start of the session on Feb. 5, revisions could be made after the hearing to incorporate feedback.
Last month, a bipartisan working group of legislators debated whether to “grandfather in” children whose parents had claimed the religious exemption – meaning that if the kids were already enrolled in school, they could stay. Only new children entering the state’s public and private schools would be barred from choosing the religious exemption.
But on Tuesday, lawmakers appeared to be backing away from that idea.
“Since we started this debate last year, a bunch of states have passed laws on this issue. There’s a tendency to give people some time – but a limited amount of time – to comply with the new law,” House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said. “We’re wrestling with that. I think there should be some amount of time, but I don’t know that it should be a very elongated period.”
Gov. Ned Lamont and State Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell have recommended the religious exemption be eliminated effective Oct. 21, 2021, to give parents time to prepare for the change. Vaccinations are required for all students entering public and private schools, but home-schoolers are not covered.
The proposed legislation would not force children to be immunized, but it would bar some unvaccinated kids from enrolling in Connecticut’s schools. Coleman-Mitchell and other state officials have cited concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot receive shots for medical reasons.
State and legislative leaders have pointed to the national measles outbreak last year and to data that show dozens of Connecticut schools have fallen below the threshold needed to maintain herd immunity as reasons to erase the religious exemption.
“It still remains the goal of legislative leaders, the governor and the chairs of the Public Health Committee to protect children who are not able to get vaccinated by eliminating or curtailing the use of non-medical exemptions,” Ritter said Tuesday.
Members of the CT Freedom Alliance, a group opposed to repealing the provision, said they planned to attend the hearing in February.
Brian Festa, a co-founder of the organization, pointed to the recent collapse of an effort in New Jersey to wipe out that state’s religious exemption as an example where activists prevailed. After weeks of boisterous protests by vaccine skeptics, along with a last-minute attempt to amend the bill to win support, the New Jersey proposal fell apart in the state Senate Monday.
“We see this as a civil rights issue, as a freedom issue,” Festa said. “It’s something that we’re going to continue to oppose.”
Connecticut has a short session this year. Lawmakers have only three months to move bills through the General Assembly.