Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — House Majority Leader Matt Ritter meant it when he said he wanted to vote on getting rid of Connecticut’s religious exemption for vaccines.

At the end of March, Ritter wrote Attorney General William Tong to ask for a formal legal 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 points to the recent measles outbreaks in New York and the Pacific Northwest as the reason the religious exemption should be eliminated.

“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.

A spokeswoman for Tong’s office said they have received the request and “are reviewing relevant law and expect to deliver an opinion sometime next month.”

In the meantime, 41 Republicans and three Democrats who support the religious exemption have also written to Tong outlining why, under federal and state law, they believe it would be both unnecessary and illegal to eliminate the religious exemption.

“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.”

Ritter said those might be the statewide rates, but he thinks they should be able to get immunization information by school district.

The Department of Public Health currently does not publicly disseminate that information.

“Under Conn. Gen. Stat. sec.  19a-25 (see attached), the Department cannot publish, make available or disseminate reports of the findings of studies of morbidity and mortality (such as a school or school district’s immunization rates) or any other documents that include identifiable health data or any item, collection, or grouping of health data that makes the individual or organization supplying it or described in it identifiable (e.g. in the case of the annual immunization survey, a specific school),” the department said in response to a CTNewsJunkie Freedom of Information request. “In addition, the same statute precludes the Department from producing reports that do not contain identifiable health data in response to specific requests since doing so would result in linking the report to an identifiable individual or organization.” 

Ritter said he’s working with Senate President Martin Looney to pass legislation that would give the public access to that school district-based information.

He said he hopes its 98.2% in each school district, but at the moment they don’t know and parents deserve to have that information. He said once they know if there are any “hot spots” of unvaccinated children then they can evaluate the information and come up with a plan for legislation in 2020.

However, those who support the current religious exemption don’t trust that lawmakers won’t move forward this year with legislation.

“It is our firm believe 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,” the 44 lawmakers said in their letter to Tong.

They said getting rid of the religious exemption would “have the effect of giving preference to some religious believes over others, and prohibiting children from freely exercising their religious beliefs. One is not able to ‘freely exercise’ his or her religion if that exercise results in the loss of the right to a free public education.”

Essentially, “Parents would be forced to choose between violating their sincerely held religious beliefs and gaining access to a free public education,” the 44 lawmakers wrote.

At a press conference in March, Ritter said that any unvaccinated child could be homeschooled.

The 44 lawmakers who support the religious exemption said that “By denying access to a public education and its related programming and activities on the basis of religious belief, certain groups of people are provided with more rights and privileges than others, in violation of the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Connecticut Constitutions.”

They added that “the right to a free public education is guaranteed by our Constitution.”

Taking the issue of religion and equal protection further, they said another Connecticut statute makes it “illegal to deny anyone ‘full and equal accommodations in any place of public accommodation’ on the basis of ‘creed’,” and creed is a much broader term than “religion,” the 44 lawmakers wrote in their letter to Tong. They admitted that Ritter could add “notwithstanding” the state statutes eliminating the religious exemption would violate, but they opined he can’t do that when it comes to the Connecticut Constitution.

The letters arrived in Tong’s office around the same time that Connecticut confirmed its third case of measles this year.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story had the number of Republicans and Democrats wrong who authored the letter to Tong in support of the religious exemption.