The Public Health Committee forwarded two bills that limit the use of religious exemptions for childhood vaccines to the House and the Senate.
The bills, which passed 22-11 Wednesday, were the subject of a 24 hour hearing. They have been controversial, prompted protests and presented a challenge for lawmakers who struggled to balance public health with parental choice and religious freedom.
There were also process concerns.
Although it is not unusual for the legislature to entertain more than one similar proposal, Republicans on the committee said the majority party’s careful maneuvering of the controversial bills, one that will start in the House and one that will start in the Senate, felt like political gamesmanship.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said he was offended by the suggestion that the process was “rigged,” or manipulated in any way. He said the pandemic has required them to do it this way to guarantee the bill gets through the process at a time when the two chambers are not meeting on the same day.
Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, said it was “disingenuous,” to introduce two identical bills.
Aside from the process, lawmakers on the committee voiced their opinion about the bills that would eliminate the religious exemption for every elementary school student in the state. Those in seventh grade and beyond who already have a religious exemption would be grandfathered in under the current proposals.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said he will vote for the legislation to get out of committee but would prefer all children who currently have a religious exemption to be grandfathered.
He said those children did not make the decision for themselves and will be impacted by the legislation if they are not able to attend school as a result. He said he finds it unacceptable that parents who already made the decision for their children would have to pull them from school.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the bills could potentially displace 10,000 students.
According to the Department of Public Health, 8,300 children claimed a religious exemption in the 2020 school year. That’s up slightly from the 7,800 who claimed it during the 2019 school year.
The dataset for the 2019-20 school year showed that 120 schools had measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination rates below 95%, including 26 schools with rates below 90%.
But Republicans struggled to get answers about what the state is doing to improve education around immunizations.
“You are doing nothing to increase the vaccination rate,” Somers said. “If you really wanted to do a push for vaccination rates you would do what we’re doing for COVID.” Somers was referring to the educational efforts to get more Connecticut residents above the age of 16 vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
Steinberg said it’s not possible to educate people on the topic.
“Because of what’s gone on on the Internet,” Steinberg said. “Because of these very dangerous sources of misinformation the entire ability of our community to have an effective dialogue to protect the public health, to honor the social compact have broken down.”
Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Bethany, said most of her constituents are not in favor of the bill because “it is an overreach of government.”
She said none of them are fostering “an anti-vaccine position.”
As for other claims that the bill forces parents to vaccinate their children: “This is not a forced vaccination bill, no one is holding anyone down and putting a needle in their arm,” Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said.
Nearly 2,000 people signed up to testify on the bills, but the 24-hour cap on the public hearing meant about 1,800 people were not able to testify. Most of those who were able to testify on the bills were against them.
“There is a significant portion of the population that was not present at the public hearing that does feel that we are in a situation where we need to have the religious exemption removed,” Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw said.
Kavros DeGraw said the education is best shared between a patient and their doctor.
“Folks in my district by and large overwhelmingly support ensuring that their children attending public school have a safe learning environment, which for them means knowing that vaccine preventable conditions are not spreading through the school district,” Rep. Jaime Foster, D-East Windsor, said.
She said she understands why some lawmakers on the committee are struggling with how “an individual’s right to choose what happens in their household or with their children, is outweighed by public health and public good.”
She said making a bodily choice that only impacts you as an individual is different than making a choice that “puts others at risk.”
She applauded the committee, including those opposed to the bill, for not fear mongering about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had the wrong vote tally.