Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Parents and advocates who support the religious exemption to vaccines (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Hartford Superior Court Judge Susan Quinn Cobb asked a Bristol couple’s attorney on Monday whether it would have made a difference if they had personally sent a letter to the Commissioner of Public Health objecting to the release of school-by-school data.

On May 3, Brian Festa went with LeeAnn Ducat of Informed Choice Connecticut to hand-deliver a letter to Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell asking her not to release the school-by-school vaccination data. Later that day Coleman-Mitchell released the information, and on May 10 Coleman-Mitchell responded to Informed Choice Connecticut.

“The court is curious as to why the organization didn’t bring the action,” Cobb said.

Brian and Kristen Festa filed the lawsuit on their own before hiring state Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, as their attorney in the matter. They were in court Monday to hear arguments in the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but Cobb did not rule on the motion during Monday’s proceeding.

Assistant Attorney General Darren Cunningham argued that the Festas didn’t exhaust their administrative remedies because it was Informed Choice that signed the May 3 letter to the commissioner, rather than the Festas, and the organization is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The Festas are board members of the organization, which represents about 500 Connecticut families, and Brian Festa drafted the letter, according to Pavalock-D’Amato.

“There isn’t a difference,” Pavalock-D’Amato said. “Between parents it wouldn’t have necessarily changed. There are no facts that were different. It was about the release of the information and that’s it.”

She said the reason the commissioner released the information was to encourage more people to get vaccinated, but “there’s no correlation between who is not vaccinated and thinking that’s all of sudden going to inspire people to vaccinate their kids. They’ve done research. There’s a reason they did not want to vaccinate their kids.”

The Festas are objecting to the publication of the school-by-school immunization data, which is anonymized.

“The data was weaponized in order to push a political agenda and everyone here knows it,” Ducat said Monday following arguments. The Festas deferred comments to Ducat who declined to comment directly on arguments made in court.

Cunningham said the letter did not meet the substantive requirements for the Festas’ specific situation.

Things may have gone differently Monday if the Festas had written a letter May 3 addressing the specific situation with their son, who attends the Meliora Academy in Meriden where 18.5% of the students reported religious exemptions to required vaccinations for the 2017-18 school year.

The Festas argued in their original complaint that since the school their 7-year-old son attends was “publicly exposed as a school with one of the highest rates of exemption usage, all students and parents of students at Meliora and other schools with high exemption rates — including the Applicants — are potential targets of harassment.”

That harassment didn’t occur, according to Cunningham, until the lawsuit was filed publicly and then reported on by news organizations.

Pavalock-D’Amato said Mr. Festa tried to file the lawsuit using a pseudonym, but a clerk told him it would not be acceptable.

Cunningham said there would be no time limitation or penalty for the Festas if they wanted to send a letter addressing their specific situation to the Public Health Commissioner.

The Festas’ lawsuit arrived on the heels of a legislative session during which lawmakers, following the release of the 2017-18 school-level data, raised concerns about the potential for measles outbreaks at schools with low immunization rates and discussed the possibility of legislating an end to religious exemptions for school vaccinations.

A vocal group of parents and advocates opposed the idea, suggesting it was a violation of individual freedoms including access to public education, and some said they believed that their children had been injured by vaccines.

The same group of parents and advocates showed up Monday for oral arguments. The court had to move to a new courtroom twice to accommodate the crowd comprised mostly of women. About 40 women dressed in white attended the hearing in solidarity with the Festas.

Cunningham said that he’s just pointing out that the Festas didn’t receive threats until the lawsuit was reported.

He said the Festas had 45 days from May 10 to secure counsel and file a lawsuit to prevent the release of any future data, which was expected to be released in June.

The 2018-19 school-by-school immunization data is now expected to be released Oct. 21.

Cobb has 180 days to rule on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but likely will try to issue an opinion in advance of the Oct. 21 release date.

Gov. Ned Lamont overruled Coleman-Mitchell’s decision not to release the 2018-19 school-by-school data and has promised to make the data available. Coleman-Mitchell says she supports the decision after saying she didn’t believe it was necessary because there are no active cases of measles in Connecticut.