HARTFORD, CT — House Majority Leader Matt Ritter vowed Wednesday that in the next 12 months the General Assembly will vote on whether to eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines for school children.
“I will do everything in my power to make sure there is a vote,” Ritter said. “Everybody should be on the record for how they feel about this.”
It’s unclear if any legislation will be voted on this year because currently there is no legislation explicitly eliminating the religious exemption. That means they would have to use another unrelated bill as the vehicle and add new language on the floor. Ritter admitted it might be a discussion that carries over into next year.
The Children’s Committee passed a bill Tuesday, HB 7005, that adds a disclaimer to the religious exemption form explaining that school nurses have the right to decline to sign a form, but Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, has promised not to use that bill to eliminate religious exemptions.
Ritter said at the moment they don’t have a bill in mind that they could use to pass this legislation.
Deputy Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said Ritter’s promise rings hollow because if he really wanted to discuss the issue and vote on it, then he should have raised a bill and had a public hearing.
“To suggest that we’re going to take up an issue that Public Health had expressly decided not to raise and to put that forward after the committee process is very disconcerting to me,” Candelora said.
He said regardless of where you fall on the issue “nobody can deny there should be a public hearing first.”
Ritter said he doesn’t know how he could be more public about his intentions then holding a press conference and calling for legislation.
“This is about as public as you can be. We are going to call a bill in the next 12 months on the House floor to get rid of the religious exemption,” Ritter, whose wife is a physician, said.
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said some of the hearings they have had have become “defacto” hearings on the issue because if a bill even touches on vaccinations, the discussion turns to “the elimination of the religious exemption.”
And that is exactly what was communicated by those who testified against HB 7005.
“Parents who have religious objections to vaccination have valid concerns about legislative creep,” Kevin Barry, president of First Freedoms, warned the Children’s Committee in February.
But Ritter defended his position Wednesday.
“It’s not fair to a child with a compromised immune system to have to go to school with those children,” Ritter said, referring to unvaccinated children. “You have to fight for those folks.”
He said they’re not saying a person shouldn’t have a strongly held religious belief that prevents them from getting a vaccine. He said the removal of the exemption would simply mean that they couldn’t enroll unvaccinated children in public school.
Supporters of the religious exemption lined the second floor of the state Capitol and gathered outside Ritter’s office Wednesday to voice their objections.
LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice USA, said it’s not a “fad diet.” She said it’s “people realizing their rights are being stripped away.”
She said the crowd gathered outside Ritter’s office Wednesday were looking to “preserve our First Amendment rights.”
She said regardless of how anyone feels about the issue, “state power stops at my skin.”
She said some vaccines are manufactured in the “cell lines of aborted fetal tissue” and some contain DNA from animal species and a lot of people have religious objections to that.
Ritter said those with religious exemptions can homeschool.
“Our children have the right to a free public education per our state law and constitution,” Ducat said.
“So removing the religious exemption won’t reconcile for either of those reasons,” she added.
“I think our government is a little bit reckless in saying ‘everything is ok’ and we should be ingesting it,” Candelora said referring to Thimerosal, which is a preservative added to multi-dose vaccines to prevent bacterial or fungus growth.
He said it should come down to parental choice.
Connecticut law doesn’t have a philosophical exemption to vaccines. It only has a religious exemption.
“I’m not going to question somebody’s religion, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Candelora said. “If somebody wants to express a religious exemption they should be allowed to do so and the government shouldn’t be questioning that.”
He said the number of religious exemptions in Connecticut is limited and it defies logic that they are posing a health risk.
Ritter said no one is calling for “forced vaccinations,” but in order to attend a public school it’s his opinion that all children should be vaccinated.
“The stories we’ve seen across the country tell me we have to vote affirmatively on this,” Ritter said.
Elliott said the “pro-informed choice crowd” uses “pseudo-science” to defend their positions on social media.
He said Connecticut can either wait like the Pacific Northwest did, or it can take action like other states have taken.
“Do we want to wait until we have deaths and large scale outbreaks or do we want to solve the problem before it gets to Connecticut?” Elliott said.