christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
A group of several hundred parents gathered Wednesday on the north steps of the state Capitol in opposition to lawmakers’ plan to eliminate the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – Hundreds of parents came to the opening day of the 2020 legislative session to make sure lawmakers know they want to maintain the status quo and keep the religious exemption for childhood vaccines.

They lined Capitol Avenue and then rallied on the north steps of the Capitol.

The group is hoping to stop the Connecticut General Assembly from repealing the religious exemption to school vaccine requirements.

New Jersey Assemblyman Jamel Holley, a Democrat, addressed the parents and children at the rally.

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
New Jersey Assemblyman Jamel Holley speaks to the crowd Wednesday (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“No government should be at the kitchen table making decisions for parents and children regarding medical decisions at all,” Holley said.

The various groups who organized Wednesday’s rally in Connecticut hope to replicate what happened in New Jersey in December, when the state Senate there was unable to find enough votes to repeal that state’s religious exemption.

According to news reports, protests by parents and children opposed to mandatory vaccines were enough to get the issue tabled before a vote. Parents and children were reportedly yelling and stomping their feet outside the Senate chamber when they figured out that they didn’t have the votes.

However, Holley said in order to do that they are going to need even bigger crowds.

“I need a sea of thousands, and thousands of more people out here,” Holley said.

He said they had 8,000 people at an event in Trenton.

Holley said lawmakers who support keeping the religious exemption need the public’s help to stand up to leadership.

“You need to give Jack cover,” Holley said, referring to Rep. Jack Hennessy, a Democrat from Bridgeport who is fighting to keep the religious exemption.

“When they hear you, you win,” Holley said. “If they don’t hear you, you won’t win.”

Holley said they have to be aggressive in contacting their legislators and turning even more people out for the public hearing on the legislation, which had not yet been made publicly available Wednesday.

“I mean you have to tear the roof down of the statehouse,” Holley added.

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Some of the signs on display in support the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)
christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Some of the signs on display in support the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Holley also had a message for the media: “Stop calling everybody an anti-vaxxer.”

“We know at some level there needs to be some medicine out there to protect us, but dammit, it’s the parents choice,” Holley said.

He said “these are good people trying to protect their kids, trying to protect their community.”

The rally at one point broke out into a chant of “my child, my choice.”

Hennessy said his fellow lawmakers tried to sneak through a repeal of the religious exemption last year without a public hearing because “they were afraid. They were afraid of you.”

“We banded together and we stopped them,” Hennessy said.

He said they will do it again.

He said the emails and the testimony “paid off and they backed off.”

“This is your constitutional right,” Hennessy said. “They haven’t taken it away from us yet.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, has promised a vote on repealing the religious exemption by the end of March.

“We announced it several months ago and no one has wavered from the House and Senate leadership to the governor’s office on getting it passed this year,” Ritter has said.

He said “hundreds of people are not vaccinating their children anymore –  based mostly on misinformation –  and that’s a danger to a lot of our residents and we want to end that.”

He said he didn’t think the rally Wednesday impacted how lawmakers feel about the issue.

“I think people are pretty uniformly united around the fact that non-medical exemptions cannot continue to grow in Connecticut at the rate they are,” Ritter said. “At some point it has to stop.”

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Some of the signs on display in support the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said a bill will be filed to eliminate the religious exemption, which some lawmakers have started to refer to as the “non-medical exemption,” in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Steinberg said he expects that the Public Health Committee will vote to have a public hearing because even those without reservations about the bill understand the need for the public to weigh in. He said it takes a lot of time for everyone to express their viewpoint on an issue that has been this controversial, but he promised everyone will “have their three minutes.”

The issue made it into Lamont’s state-of-the-state address.

“With infectious viruses threatening our nation and state from overseas, now more than ever, a thoughtful vaccination program is vital to keep our families safe,” Lamont said Wednesday.

For those seeking to repeal the religious exemption, a public hearing or rally is just another attempt to spread misinformation.

“It is truly disheartening to once again witness coordinated efforts to spread false information about the safety of vaccines on the grounds of our state Capitol,” said Amy Pisani, executive director of a Connecticut-based group called “Vaccinate Your Family.”

“The dangerous spread of disinformation about vaccines has been called out by the World Health Organization and was the root cause of the measles outbreaks of 2019. I am confident that our legislators will be guided by science and will take the necessary steps to remove non-medical vaccine exemptions for school and daycare entry here in Connecticut,” Pisani said.

Lawmakers are looking to phase out the exemption to give families an opportunity to decide whether to vaccinate or homeschool their children.

“As increasing numbers of families are being encouraged to claim religious exemptions for school entry, this jeopardizes the community immunity levels that are critical to keeping diseases at bay,” Pisani said. “When parents place our children under the care of our school systems, we should not have to fear that they may contract a preventable deadly infectious disease. Our children have the right to safe school environments and it is up to our legislators to ensure that sound public health policies are enforced throughout the state.”

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Some of the signs on display in support the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)