Cameron Atkinson, in hat, and his client, Pastor James Loomer. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

A young lawyer representing a small evangelical church in Milford asked a federal judge Monday to upend a century of legal precedent and keep alive its constitutional challenge to a law ending the religious exemption to Connecticut’s required vaccinations against communicable diseases for school children.

Cameron Atkinson, who wears a white cowboy hat to court and calls himself a gunslinger, asked U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden in New Haven to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the case he filed on behalf of Milford Christian Church with the financial backing of a national group, We The Patriots USA, Inc.

“As it was from day one, our message to the state remains completely unchanged: We will obey God first. We don’t care what the state does. We are going to honor him first,” Atkinson said on the courthouse steps after the hearing. “Whatever public health interests the state has, people of faith deserve to have a place to pursue an honest and godly life.”

A previous challenge to the Connecticut law, also involving Atkinson and We The Patriots USA, was dismissed by another judge in January. With the exception of one narrow claim involving an individual special-education student, the dismissal was affirmed in August in a 2-1 vote by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“[T]his Court and the Supreme Court have consistently recognized that the Constitution embodies no fundamental right that in and of itself would render vaccine requirements imposed in the public interest, in the face of a public health emergency, unconstitutional,” the Second Circuit judges wrote.

Atkinson said he intends to appeal the Second Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court by year’s end. The law violates the constitutional right to religious freedom, he said.

Darren P. Cunningham, an assistant attorney general representing the state, said there have been a flurry of legal challenges to vaccination laws on various grounds in recent years, some related to COVID-19.

“None have succeeded,” Cunningham said.

In April 2021, Connecticut became the fourth state to pass a law ending a religious exemption for school vaccinations, following California in 2015 and New York and Maine in 2019. By grandfathering any K-12 student who already had an exemption, the Connecticut law initiated a phase-out, not an immediate ban.

But the grandfather provision did not extend to daycares and preschools, such as the Little Eagles school operated by the Milford Christian Church. It sued the state in March 2023, two months after the first We The Patriots case was dismissed.

We The Patriots USA is a conservative public law group that describes itself as opposed to government overreach in the areas of religious and medical freedom, gun ownership and parent rights: “When you stand up to tyrants, we stand up for you.”

One stated basis for the Milford Christian suit was that some commonly used vaccines are produced using cell lines obtained by two overseas abortions about 50 years ago.

James Loomer, the pastor of Milford Christian Church, has led vigils outside abortion clinics.

“We believe that we shouldn’t take part in another person’s sin or derive benefit from that. We believe abortion is immoral. We believe in the sanctity of life,” said Atkinson, a graduate of Liberty University, an evangelical school. “Pastor Loomer has been very active in that in his outreach ministry, here in New Haven and across Connecticut.”

Milford Christian is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the U.S. The Assemblies has no doctrinal prohibition against vaccines but leaves decisions about their use to church members.

Loomer said there are members of his church and children at its Little Eagles school who are vaccinated.

“We’re not anti-vax, you know, as some might perceive that,” Loomer said. “We’re just saying parents have a right to decide the health care of their children, whether it’s vaccinations or anything else.”

Cunningham said the 2021 law, which was passed after annual monitoring showed falling vaccination rates and an increase in religious exemptions, was crafted in pursuit of a legitimate government interest.

The fact that a medical exemption remains in force does not render the law, Public Act 21-6, irrational, Cunningham wrote in his brief supporting the motion for dismissal.

“To the contrary, the General Assembly’s objective in enacting P.A. 21-6 — protecting school children and the broader public from communicable diseases — is not merely a legitimate governmental interest but a compelling one,” Cunningham wrote.

On his side is more than a century of precedent.

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge of a vaccination requirement in Massachusetts to fight a smallpox outbreak. The majority opinion was written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was better known for his dissents in decisions restricting civil liberties.

“There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” Harlan wrote. “Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.”

In 1944, Justice Wiley B. Rutledge wrote for the majority in another case that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not exempt from child labor laws. His opinion seemed to anticipate today’s controversies over religious exemptions and vaccines.

“The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death,” he wrote. “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves, but it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”

Well aware of the precedents, Atkinson smiled and said, “I like a challenge, in case you haven’t noticed. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the fight, the more we’re in it.”

During the hearing, Atkinson challenged the state’s contention that falling vaccination rates pose a public health threat. Overall, they remain at the 95% rate that health officials say is necessary to preserve community immunity, but they are far lower in individual schools.

Atkinson told the judge that denying the motion to dismiss and keeping the case alive would allow a discovery process to explore the state’s contention. But he acknowledged outside the court that no public health data would change the case, in his view.

He was adamant when asked if a change in vaccination rates, or an outbreak of a disease preventable by inoculations, would change his view of the justification for the 2021 law.

“No, the First Amendment guarantees an affirmative right to practice your faith,” Atkinson said. “The state isn’t respecting that, particularly in a context where they dared to come in and try to knock on a church door and shut down a church ministry. Our answer is, ‘Hell, no.’”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.