Lawmakers set hearing on wiping out religious exemption to vaccines

Lawmakers set hearing on wiping out religious exemption to vaccines

Lawmakers who have called for an end to the state’s religious exemption on vaccines scheduled a public hearing for Monday on the issue, a possible first step in introducing 11th hour legislation to repeal the provision.

Buoyed by data released last week by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, which showed a slew of schools with kindergarten immunization rates below the 95 percent threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, legislators said they have accelerated their timetable for eliminating the exemption.

“Based upon the information we’ve received, there’s a growing group of legislators that think we may have to act this session,” House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said. “We want to have the hearing and see where it goes.”

The hearing will run from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday in room 2E of the Legislative Office Building. Ritter organized the event with Rep. Liz Linehan, D- Cheshire; Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee; Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk; and Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford.

Ritter stopped short of saying when legislation might be introduced to repeal the religious exemption, or what vehicle lawmakers would use to do this. There are less than four weeks left in the legislative session.

The overall immunization rate of Connecticut students is more than 98 percent, but data show a surprising number of schools with high rates of unvaccinated children, according to figures released by the state health department. Exemptions were handed out for religious and medical reasons.

More than eight dozen schools reported that more than five percent of their students claimed exemptions, while the DPH identified 102 schools where less than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella.

A handful of schools reported incorrect data last week. Revised percentages for the 12 schools were released by the health department Friday.

The updated figures show Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, a private institution in Newtown, had the highest exemption rate at 37.7 percent. All of the waivers were granted on religious grounds.

Giant Steps CT, a private school in Fairfield for children with learning and developmental disorders, and Crossway Christian Academy, a private school in Putnam, also had high exemption rates, at 34.2 percent and 25.9 percent, respectively. At both institutions, all of the waivers were handed out for religious reasons.

The revelations alarmed legislative leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont, who called the assessment “startling” and said the lower rates must be addressed, though he did not elaborate.

“After discussing it with Sen. [Martin] Looney and the speaker and the governor’s office and the DPH commissioner, we thought this was a necessary hearing to discuss the data, which obviously we’re all very concerned about,” Ritter said Friday.

Even before the data release, Ritter and Linehan held a press conference in March seeking to curtail the religious exemption, though they did not say when the effort would begin.

The repeal would not force children to be immunized. It would prohibit kids who are not vaccinated on religious grounds from enrolling in the state’s public schools.

California, Mississippi and West Virginia have eliminated their religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccine mandates.

Earlier this week, Attorney General William Tong issued an opinion saying lawmakers’ quest to wipe out the exemption in Connecticut does not violate the state or federal constitutions. Ritter had asked Tong to weigh in on the issue.

Tong did not take a position on whether the General Assembly should repeal the provision.“That is a policy decision entrusted exclusively to the judgment of the legislature and the governor,” he said.

A group of Republican legislators wrote a letter to the attorney general in April expressing fierce opposition to the repeal.

“It is our firm belief that the elimination of the religious exemption would violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, at least five provisions of Connecticut’s Constitution, and at least three Connecticut general statutes,” they wrote. “We hope you will join us in our firm conviction that Connecticut should never be a state that favors certain religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.”

Tong noted in his opinion that the Mississippi Supreme Court had struck down a state exemption based on religious beliefs, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld West Virginia’s decision to get rid of its religious exclusion.

This story originally appeared on the website of The Connecticut Mirror,