One of several protests at the state Capitol against the law to eliminate the religious exemption to childhood vaccination requirements for public schools.
One of several protests at the state Capitol against the law to eliminate the religious exemption to childhood vaccination requirements for public schools. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

A Connecticut law removing a longstanding religious exemption to school vaccination requirements was largely upheld on Friday by a panel of federal appeals court judges, who dismissed constitutional arguments central to a legal challenge of the 2021 policy.

The decision by three judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals generally affirmed a lower court ruling upholding the law. However, the judges vacated a section of the ruling involving a claim under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and remanded it back to the lower court for further consideration. 

The lawsuit was brought by several Connecticut parents as well as two groups, We the Patriots USA and CT Freedom Alliance, who argued that the law scrapping the exemption to immunization requirements for students entering kindergarten violated a series of constitutional rights including the right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton dismissed these claims and on Friday the appeals court largely agreed. 

“Only one court — state or federal, trial or appellate — has ever found plausible a claim of a constitutional defect in a state’s school vaccination mandate on account of the absence or repeal of a religious exemption,” Judge Denny Chin wrote for the majority. “We decline to disturb this nearly unanimous consensus.”

In a narrow dissent, Judge Joseph Bianco agreed with most of the panel’s ruling, but argued that eliminating a religious exemption while maintaining a medical exemption to vaccine requirements raised a plausible claim under the First Amendment. 

“Although Connecticut asserts that this differing treatment between religious and secular exemptions was prompted by a substantial increase over recent years in the number of religious exemptions and an acute risk of an outbreak of disease, Connecticut fails to explain how forty-four states and the District of Columbia have maintained a religious exemption for mandatory student vaccinations without jeopardizing public health and safety,” Bianco wrote.

Despite that concern, the panel upheld Arterton’s dismissal of all four constitutional claims made in the lawsuit. 

However, the appeals court ruling differed from the lower court under a fifth claim included in the complaint, which argued that the law violated the rights of a Stamford parent who had chosen not to vaccinate her disabled son. 

The plaintiff had argued that the new law put Connecticut in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which required the state to provide disabled children with a free public education.

The appeals court ruled that Arterton had applied an overly strict standard when it determined that the parent had no claim under the law and ordered the district court to weigh the state’s responses to the parent’s claims. 

In a statement on Friday, Attorney General William Tong’s office said it was confident the district court would dismiss the IDEA claim on remand and welcomed the rest of the ruling as a victory for public health. 

“This decision is a full and resounding affirmation of the constitutionality and legality of Connecticut’s vaccine requirements,” Tong said. “Vaccines save lives—this is a fact beyond dispute. The legislature acted responsibly and well within its authority to protect the health of Connecticut families and stop the spread of preventable disease. We will continue to vigorously defend our state’s strong and necessary public health laws.”

Connecticut maintained a religious exemption to school vaccine requirements from 1959 until it was repealed in 2021. Legislators adopted the change in response to declining vaccination rates, including pockets where schools fell below 90%, prompting concerns over the potential for outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. 

The exemption’s repeal sparked controversy and protests, including a demonstration on the day of the bill’s final passage when thousands of people gathered outside the state Capitol in opposition.