The Connecticut House of Representatives has approved a contentious bill that would end the state’s long-standing religious exemption from immunization requirements for schools, beginning with the 2022 school year. The state House has voted 90-53. Debate began shortly before 11am yesterday and ended around 3 o'clock this morning.
Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he’s ready to sign the bill into law.
The legislation stems from an uptick in the number of families in Connecticut who have sought a religious exemption from a host of childhood vaccinations, ultimately lowering the vaccination rate in as many as 100 schools at one point to under 95%. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Department of Public Health reported that an unvaccinated child from Fairfield County contracted measles while traveling internationally.
Roughly 7,600 children in grades K-12 currently have religious exemptions in Connecticut.
Kent Representative Maria Horn says the science is overwhelmingly clear that vaccines save lives. She understands that they don't work for all people, but for everyone who can they should be, in order to protect the vulnerable population. She noted that it's a difficult issue, and pushed for a stronger medical exemption. Horn says, if she were to conduct a poll, a majority of her constituents believe in the power of vaccinations.
Newtown Representative Mitch Bolinsky says the state should not force parents to get their children inoculated in order for them to attend public school. He says denying families that have made this alternate choice, half of one percent of the school population, feels wrong and segregationalist.
The strong feelings surrounding the issue were evident early in Monday’s House debate when lawmakers, on a bipartisan vote of 106-36, amended the bill to expand the number of children with existing religious exemptions who wouldn’t be affected. Instead of grandfathering the exemptions for children currently in 7th grade and older, the amended bill would grandfather children in kindergarten and older.
Bolinsky says it's wrong even though it would grandfather individuals enrolled in kindergarten or higher who submitted a religious exemption prior to the bill’s passage. He is concerned about one constituent family, with kids aged 2, 4, 7 and 9. He notes that half of the children will not be given the opportunity to have a public education.
This marks the third year in a row that lawmakers have considered removing the religious exemption for vaccinations. It’s been an emotionally charged debate. Both legislators who support and oppose the legislation have reported receiving hostile emails and social media posts over the issue.
This year, nearly 2,000 members of the public signed up in February to testify at an unprecedented 24-hour, virtual legislative hearing on the issue. Many, including parents concerned about the safety of vaccines, argued that stripping the exemption will infringe on their religious and parental rights and on their child’s right to a public education.
While proponents said the change was more fair to parents who’ve already sought exemptions for their children and help ensure those children aren’t pulled out of school, critics argued it was still discriminatory.
The legislation would take effect on Sept. 1, 2022.
Redding Representative Anne Hughes broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against it. Meanwhile Representative William Petit, a physician and ranking member of the Public Health Committee, voted in favor of the legislation.
Connecticut is currently one of 45 states with a religious exemption from childhood vaccinations. The medical exemption will remain in place available for families.