For the third year in a row, legislators are hoping to advance – and ultimately adopt – a bill that would remove Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations. The proposal is expected to come up for a vote in the legislature’s Public Health Committee this week.
In 2019, Democratic lawmakers floated the proposal halfway through the regular session, calling press conferences, scheduling a public hearing and soliciting input from the state’s health department even though no bill was drafted. The measure did not come up for a vote in either chamber.
Last year, the Public Health Committee called a hearing on the religious exemption bill just two weeks into the session, drawing hundreds of people, many of them opposed to the measure. Members voted to send the bill to the House floor just days later. But the session was suspended soon after, leaving the proposal in limbo.
On Feb. 16, legislators held their third public hearing on the plan. Although the health committee has until April 7 to advance the bill, a vote is expected Wednesday.
Here’s what’s in the controversial proposal:
What is the religious exemption?
The Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill in 1959 making certain vaccines mandatory for children attending school. In it, they included an exemption for people who object to the immunizations based on religious beliefs. The state was in the midst of a polio epidemic, and lawmakers called the measure a necessary step in protecting children. The religious exemption, along with the medical exemption, has been on the books ever since.
Each year, parents of school-aged children can fill out a form or write a letter to their child’s school nurse or principal saying they are refraining from vaccination on religious grounds. Parents must do this before a child enters Kindergarten and again before 7th grade, when some additional immunizations are required.
If the bill succeeds, when would the exemption go away?
The exemption would be removed starting Sept. 1, 2022. That means families could continue claiming it during the 2021-22 school year, but not during the 2022-23 school year or beyond that.
The bill does not force children to be immunized. It bars unvaccinated children (who do not qualify for a medical exemption) from enrolling in school.
Would anyone still be able to claim it?
As currently drafted, the bill allows children in seventh grade and higher to continue refusing mandatory vaccines for religious reasons. Anyone in grades six or under would no longer be eligible, as would children of any age entering the school system in the future.
Legislators said the bill may be amended to allow all students currently enrolled in school to keep claiming the exemption. In that case, only new children entering school or day care would be prohibited from refusing vaccines based on their religious beliefs. Negotiations about the language are ongoing.
How many children claim the religious exemption?
In the 2019-20 school year, the most recent data available, 8,328 children – across all grade levels – had claimed the exemption. That’s up from 7,782 in 2018-19, and 7,042 in 2017-18.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine on the state’s list of mandatory immunizations?
No. Currently, only people 16 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are both testing their shots in young children, but there are no coronavirus vaccines approved for kids younger than 16. Even when the immunization is approved for younger children, it’s unclear if it will be added to the state’s list of mandatory vaccines.
What vaccines are on Connecticut’s list of mandatory immunizations?
Mandatory immunizations include measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria; pertussis (whooping cough); tetanus; poliomyelitis; and haemophilus influenzae type B, an infection that can lead to bacterial meningitis.
The bill does leave the door open for the state health commissioner to add more required vaccines, though health officials have said they tailor their mandates to federal guidelines.
Who’s in favor and who’s opposed?
Parents who have claimed the exemption for their children say the bill infringes on their religious freedom. Some have questioned how they would hold down a job and home school their kids at the same time. Others have argued the bill would divide families – allowing older siblings (seventh grade and above) to stay in school while younger unvaccinated children would no longer be able to attend.
Proponents say they are concerned about immunocompromised children, who cannot be vaccinated because of allergies or other medical reasons. As the number of students claiming the religious exemption has risen in recent years, they said, those medically compromised children are more at risk.
“We’ve been hearing from many parents of immunocompromised children who are terrified at the prospect of sending their children to school in a situation where they may not be safe,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney said in 2019.
What else is in the bill?
The measure requires the public health commissioner to annually release school-by-school vaccination rates.
It also includes a provision that would help parents get access to the vaccines, even if they cannot afford them. In cases where parents are unable to pay for a vaccine, the town or city they live in would cover the expense.
The bill also calls for the formation of an advisory committee to review Connecticut’s vaccine program, including exemption policies and instances in which families request medical exemptions, and issue recommendations.
If the proposal clears the health committee, where will it go next?
There are two identical measures under consideration that would remove the religious exemption – one is a House bill and one is a Senate bill. Members of the Public Health Committee say they’re still debating which version will come up for a vote, or whether they’ll vote out both to give leaders in the House and Senate the decision on which chamber should take it up first.
CT Mirror Reporter Kasturi Pananjady contributed to this story.