A contentious bill that would end Connecticut's long-standing religious exemption from immunization requirements for schools, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, now awaits action in the state Senate.
The legislation passed on a 90-53 vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives just before 3 a.m. on Tuesday, following more than 16 hours of sometimes combative debate. No date has been set yet for when the Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats, will vote on the same bill.
The House vote marked the furthest the legislation has progressed in Connecticut, where lawmakers have debated the concept over the past several years. Some Republican opponents argued the bill was unnecessary, an overreach by state government, and an attempt to impede the religious liberties of potentially thousands of children. Yet mostly Democratic supporters said it was a necessary step to prevent future outbreaks of disease.
“We’ve seen a slow and steady increase in exemptions from required childhood vaccinations. We do not know when community immunity might be compromised,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Jason Rojas of East Hartford, who compared the situation to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when “far too many elected officials denied or didn’t acknowledge that there was a pandemic underway,”
He said any exceptions to the state's mandatory vaccination rules “must be limited and based on science and public health guidance. And that is why we are here today.”
About a half-hour before finally passing the bill, House members passed a Republican amendment that makes it clear that students who are now exempt from immunizations because of religious reasons to continue to be exempt if they transfer from one public or private school in Connecticut to another, or to a different school district in the state.
That action came hours after another amendment was passed grandfathering in any students with an existing religious exemption, beginning with kindergarteners. The bill had originally grandfathered students in grade 7 and higher with current exemptions, but some Republicans and Democrats raised concerns about how that would affect the education of those children, given the prospect they could be kicked out of school for not being vaccinated.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont reiterated Tuesday that he's prepared to signed the legislation into law, if it passes in the Senate.
“We saw there was a very strong vote in the legislature, which I consider (to be) in support of vaccinations and doing everything we can to encourage, in this case students, to get vaccinated, with obviously the necessary medical exemption,” Lamont said. “And I think it sends a strong signal, which I appreciate. Get vaccinated.”
The legislation stems from an uptick in the number of families in Connecticut who have sought a religious exemption from a host of childhood vaccinations, ultimately lowering the vaccination rate in as many as 100 schools at one point to under 95%. Critics questioned whether why the state wasn't trying to improve vaccination rates in those particular schools. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Department of Public Health reported that an unvaccinated child from Fairfield County contracted measles while traveling internationally.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee who raised concerns about misinformation about vaccines on the internet, said “it's reasonable to assume” many parents are using the state's religious exemption because they're worried about vaccine efficacy and safety.
“It’s a belief, even if it’s not a specific religious one. But it’s a problem, a growing problem,” he said. “Vaccine hesitancy is becoming a direct and serious threat to the public health. It demands a proactive approach, not a reactive one. ... We need to act and act before we have an epidemic, an epidemic that we can prevent.”
Roughly 7,600 children in grades K-12 currently have religious exemptions in Connecticut, lawmakers said. There was debate over how many children in the future would be impacted by the legislation, despite the grandfathering measures. Many Republicans raised concerns about what will happen to the 683 children in pre-K and daycare that are currently using the religious exemption, as well as future students that would have sought a religious exemption from required vaccinations in order to attend school.
“This body is attempting to remove the religious liberties of 8,000 children in this state because the good chairman says they have a choice,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, referring to Steinberg, who said children with compromised immune systems cannot choose to get a vaccine while many with religious exemptions can.
“What choice does a kindergarten child have in the prospects of their religion? Little, I would say. Little,” he said. “So throwing those children out of school, it’s not based on their choice, it’s based on the choice of the people in this chamber, people who should know better.”
Connecticut is currently one of 45 states with a religious exemption from childhood vaccinations. The medical exemption will remain in place available for families. There are currently more than 1,000.
Connecticut lawmakers have considered removing the religious exemption for vaccinations for several years and it’s been an emotionally charged debate. Both legislators who support and oppose the legislation have reported receiving hostile emails and social media posts over the issue.