HARTFORD, CT — A group calling itself the CT Freedom Alliance brought attorneys, advocates, and two rabbis to the Legislative Office Building on Thursday to make a case for keeping the religious exemption to school vaccine requirements.
Gov. Ned Lamont, Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell, Democratic legislative leaders, and clergy gathered on Sept. 16 to pledge their support for eliminating the religious exemption.
Legislation to this effect is expected to be introduced when the General Assembly reconvenes in February. The change in the law would not force parents to immunize their children, but rather would bar them from skipping vaccinations based on religious reasons and prohibit them from enrolling their children from public or private schools.
Brian Festa, the Bristol lawyer who brought a lawsuit against the state to stop it from releasing anonymized data about the number of religious exemptions and immunization rates by school, said the goal from now until the start of the legislative session is to educate — not to educate people about vaccines, but about their religious and parental rights.
The strategy is “to show that we’re here and that our religious beliefs are sincere,” Festa said. “I’m a Catholic. We hope to have members of the Catholic clergy speak with us and join with us.”
There is no organized religion that mandates vaccination or prohibits it.
But Festa said religion is an individual right and it’s not based on any particular organized religion.
Rabbi Zev Epstein from New York said there’s a range of views about vaccines in the Jewish faith.
“There are those who feel that it is obligatory. There are those rabbis who feel that it is neither obligatory nor forbidden, and there are actually rabbis who feel vaccination is forbidden,” Epstein said.
He said if a Connecticut parent submits a religious exemption for their child, there’s enough within Jewish law to make that exemption “plausible.”
State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, said that their focus has been on a parent’s right to make medical decisions for their children and the constitutional rights of religion and to a public education.
“Religious freedom is an individual right,” France said. “It is guaranteed in both the state and federal constitution. The individual right is not an organized religion right.”
France said religious rights are “enshrined in the individual” and not with any organized religion.
He said they are trying to make sure the right of an individual is protected.
It will be an uphill battle.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong told lawmakers in May that it would be constitutional to eliminate the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements.
“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 in a letter to House Majority Leader Matt Ritter.
The CT Freedom Alliance asked that those who support eliminating the religious exemption “stop fear mongering” and criticizing parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.
“There are no casual exempters,” Festa said. “No one decides just lightly that they’re going to get up one morning and not vaccinate their children.”
If the medical professionals and some lawmakers get their way and succeed in eliminating the religious exemption, then Festa said the people who can’t afford to homeschool their children will pack up and leave Connecticut.
Kim Mack Rosenberg of Bouer Law in New York said a public education in Connecticut is a fundamental right, so the state would have to prove that it has a compelling state interest in eradicating the religious exemption.