Protestors cheer for a speech arguing against the bill that would repeal Connecticut's religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Protestors shout “My child, my choice” at the Connecticut state Capitol on Tuesday. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Protestors shout “My child, my choice” at the Connecticut state Capitol on Tuesday. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

A measure repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations is headed for Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk, after the Senate gave final passage to the bill in an evening vote Tuesday over the objections of several Republicans and thousands of protestors who gathered outside the state Capitol.

Senators voted 22 to 14 in favor of the proposal after nine hours of debate. The vote broke mostly along party lines, with just two Democrats, Sens. Cathy Osten and Dennis Bradley, voting against it.

Gov. Ned Lamont has pledged to sign the bill, which would not force children to be inoculated but would bar students who refuse vaccines on religious grounds from attending public and private schools in Connecticut.

“This proposed legislation is bad policy, it is poorly devised, and it will have significant and far reaching negative consequences,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott. “Most importantly, it is fundamentally wrong, immoral, and I would say even anti-American.”

Joshua Coleman of California gives a speech to the protestors gathered at the Connecticut state Capitol. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Republicans argued that state data on school vaccinations was flawed, fumed over the decision to run the bill even though people weren’t given the chance to speak at an in-person public hearing (it was held online due to the pandemic), and complained that the hearing was cut off after 24 straight hours, leaving more than 1,500 people unable to remark on the legislation. They also worried for parents who would now have to home-school their children.

The proposal would erase the state’s religious exemption beginning on Sept. 1, 2022. Children in pre-kindergarten, day care or those new to the school system would no longer be able to claim the exemption starting that day. Children who are in kindergarten through 12thgrade would still qualify for the remainder of their academic careers.

The bill also requires the state’s public health commissioner to release school-by-school immunization data; helps parents who cannot afford vaccines for their children by mandating that cities and towns cover the expense; and creates a board that will review Connecticut’s vaccine program and issue recommendations.

The proposal cleared the House last week.

Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican, questioned why Democrats were rushing to pass the bill if thousands of children were being allowed to continue claiming the exemption for the remainder of their schooling. As of the 2019-20 school year, the most recent data available, 8,328 students elected the exemption, up from 7,782 in 2018-19 and 7,042 in 2017-18.

“One of the compelling reasons that we have heard over and over again is the incredible sense of a medical emergency,” Hwang said. “And what we have here is a loophole already in this current legislation that undermines the very intense and powerful effect of what is being articulated. We are creating a distinct separation, and in some cases, segregation within people’s own families.”

Democrats overwhelmingly backed the bill, with many saying that the growing number of students claiming the religious exemption puts at risk immunosuppressed children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. Some are allergic to shots; others are medically compromised.

In 2019-20, 1,156 children claimed a medical exemption.

A sign is held by a protestor at the state Capitol. Hundreds gathered, mostly without wearing masks, to protest the bill. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

“This is about the 10-year-old-student who perhaps has an autoimmune deficiency and can’t get vaccinated. That kid faces challenges every day that none of us in this chamber could possibly imagine,” said Sen. Will Haskell, a Westport Democrat. “Surely, it’s our job to make sure that kid can go to school safely. In order for that to happen, his classmates need to be vaccinated against measles and mumps and rubella; it is their herd immunity … that keeps that student safe.

“If we don’t stand up for that student – and if we don’t do it today, in the midst of a global pandemic, then who will and when?”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, cited the growing number of children claiming the religious exemption as a reason for urgency.

“Our primary constituency here is the large number of immunosuppressed and immunocompromised children for whom it is only safe to go to school if they can count on the immunity of their classmates, the herd immunity of those schools,” he said, adding: “Children are not the property, the possession or the chattel of parents or guardians. They have independent rights apart from those of their parents.”

If the bill is signed into law, Connecticut would become the sixth state without a religious exemption. New York, Maine, Mississippi, West Virginia and California do not have the vaccine exemption; 45 states and Washington D.C. do, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Protestors gather

While senators debated the measure, thousands of protestors gathered outside the state Capitol in opposition to the proposal.

Mary Holland, president of Children’s Health Defense, a group opposed to required vaccinations that was founded by Robert Kennedy Jr., who still serves as its chairman, addressed activists on the west side of the building. She said parents are in the best position to decide what’s in their children’s best interest.

“Over 50% of American children today have some kind of chronic health condition; asthma, allergies, ADHD, autism,” she said “Children are not well, and parents are the first line for protecting their children. Pharmaceutical industries have incredible privileges, they get to mandate their products, and they have liability protection on the back end. They are not honest brokers, and they don’t have children’s health in their best interest.”

Protestors cheer for a speech arguing against the proposal. “Kill the bill” and “my child, my choice” were repeatedly shouted at the protest. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Protestors cheer for a speech arguing against the proposal. “Kill the bill” and “my child, my choice” were repeatedly shouted at the protest. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

As a steady stream of people congregated, a local radio station, WDRC, set up a tent to broadcast its program while the crowd awaited news about what was happening inside the Capitol. Free food booths and port-a-potties were erected to accommodate those in attendance. Organizers of the rally estimate they spent $10,000 for the protest.

Signs hoisted in the air were mostly homemade. “1920 Poland. 2020 United States,” one read, comparing a requirement for children to be vaccinated to the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews were murdered. “If it’s forced, are we free?” another read; a third sign encouraged legislators to “defend religious liberty.”

Some protestors wore a yellow Star of David on with the writing “un-vaccinated” on it, another comparison to the Holocaust.

Organizers hosted a press conference shortly before the Senate was scheduled to begin its debate. Several speakers promised that if the bill is approved and signed into law, they would file a lawsuit to challenge its legality.

“Not only is it going to go to court, it’s going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Kevin Barry, of First Freedoms. “It doesn’t matter who wins or who loses, either they will appeal or we will appeal.”

‘Before the ink is dry, we plan on filing’

Brian Festa, a founder of CT Freedom Alliance, a group opposed to the religious exemption bill, said his organization, along with a national group known as We the Patriots USA and some parents of school-aged children, would swiftly file lawsuits challenging the new law as soon as it’s signed by Lamont. He anticipates legal challenges will be filed in both the state and federal courts.

“Before the ink is dry, we plan on filing” the lawsuits, he said. “It’s important because there are thousands of children in Connecticut who are going to be harmed by this. We can’t even wait a day to defend their constitutional right to an education.”

“Litigation generally takes a long time,” Festa added. “This is not something that courts are going to decide in a month, probably not even in a year. So the longer we wait, the longer the kids wait.”

Protestors gathered in front of the Capitol Tuesday. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

In neighboring New York, where lawmakers voted to repeal the religious exemption in 2019, two lawsuits challenging the decision were dismissed. In one, more than 50 families argued that the law violated their religious freedom rights, and they sought a preliminary injunction to stop it from taking effect while the issue wound its way through court, the Times Union reported. An Albany judge tossed the case. In another, an Amish family charged that the law breached Amish religious rights protect by the state constitution, the Democrat and Chronicle reported. A judge upheld the vaccination law.

A third lawsuit was filed last July and is pending.

Despite the outcomes in New York, Festa said, he and others are undeterred.

“Obviously, it is disappointing that those lawsuits haven’t, at this point, yielded positive results,” he said. “But it doesn’t deter us. We have our own strategy that is in some ways going to be distinct from what they’ve done.

“We’ve learned from them. We talk to attorneys in other states who have been working on these lawsuits, and we’re aware of what has worked and what hasn’t.”

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.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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