AP NEWS

CT can eliminate religious exemptions for child vaccines, AG says

May 7, 2019

HARTFORD — A few days after information released for the first time by Department of Public Health showed more than 100 schools with immunization rates for measles below the standard, Attorney General William Tong issued an opinion that its legal for lawmakers to get rid of the religious exemption.

Tong’s formal opinion, his first as attorney general, says “There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption in Section 10-204a(a) in accordance with its well-settled power to protect public health and safety.”

The opinion was in response House Majority Leader Matt Ritter’s request for a formal opinion “regarding the constitutionality of eliminating the religious exemption for required immunizations.”

Currently, pre-school and school-aged children can present a statement saying they are not immunized because it would be “contrary to the religious beliefs of such a child or the parents or guardian of such child.

Ritter pointed to the recent measles outbreaks in New York and the Pacific Northwest as the reason the religious exemption should be eliminated. He’s promised to hold a vote on the issue within the next year and he hopes Tong’s decision helped inform his colleagues.

“As you may know three states — California, Mississippi, and West Virginia — currently do not have a religious or philosophical exemption for required school immunizations. In addition, the lack of either exemption has been challenged and upheld under federal constitutional principles,” Ritter wrote in his letter.

Ritter said he plans to talk with House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate President Martin Looney about whether there’s an appetite to get rid of the religious exemption this year.

He said they thought they would have to pass a law to get access to the school-level data and now within a matter of days they have the opinion from Tong. Ritter, who has two school-aged children, said it’s an important issue that no one thought they would be dealing with this year. He said he was unable to predict what would happen next.

Tong said he doesn’t have an opinion as to whether the state should eliminate the religious exemption because that’s a policy decision for the legislature and the governor.

Tong’s opinion focused on the constitutionality under both the federal and state constitution.

“Despite a diligent search, we have been unable to find a Connecticut case that has held that a religious exemption from school vaccinations was constitutionally required,” Tong wrote. “On the contrary, over 100 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld mandatory school immunizations. Bissell v. Davison, 65 Conn. 183 (1894). More recently, a superior court case has upheld the constitutional dimensions of immunization in the context of a child custody case.”

In the custody case, Tong said the court noted that “religious freedom in this country is not an absolute right” and that “the right of parents to raise their children in accord with their personal and religious beliefs must yield when the health of the child is at risk or when there is a recognized threat to public safety.”

There are at least 44 lawmakers, 41 Republicans and three Democrats, who have expressed their opinion against removing the religious exemption. They also wrote to Tong outlining why, under federal and state law, they believe it would be both unnecessary and illegal to eliminate the religious exemption.

One of their arguments was that Connecticut doesn’t have a problem.

“Connecticut currently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country at 98.2 percent, far greater than the 75-86 percent required to achieve herd immunity for mumps, the 80-86 percent required for polio, and the 83-94 percent required for measles,” the 44 lawmakers said. “The use of the religious exemption in Connecticut, therefore, poses absolutely no threat to public health or safety.”

However, Ritter believes that argument was weakened Friday by the release of data there are more than 100 schools where the immunization standard for measles is below the 95 percent minimum rate.

Ritter said Monday that the information was “shocking” and many lawmakers were still digesting it.

The other argument the 44 lawmakers made in the letter in support of the religious exemption was that eliminating it would force parents with strongly held religious beliefs to homeschool their children. They said this requirement would violate Connecticut’s constitution that mandates “there shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

But Tong says in a footnote that “Connecticut’s constitutional guarantee of free public education does not limit the State’s power to require vaccinations.”