Connecticut repeals vaccine religious exemption to school mandates

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This article, the Connecticut legislature repeals the vaccine religious exemption for school mandates, was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

On April 27, 2021, the Connecticut legislature passed HB6423, a bill that repeals the religious exemption to Connecticut’s school vaccine mandate. Connecticut never had a personal belief exemption, so if the Governor signed it – and he indicated he will – the only exemption available in Connecticut will be a medical one. 

That said, as part of the compromises to pass the bill, children currently in school, from kindergarten on, were grandfathered – allowed to keep the exemption.

This post addresses, together, three things:

  • First, the process to pass a bill in most states is hard and arduous, and most bills fail. 
  • Second, the anti-vaccine movement fought aggressively against the bill, and the fight was national.
  • And third, what the bill does.

Background

This bill was the culmination of several years of effort. In the first rounds, a bill to repeal the religious exemption did not make it out committee in 2018 and 2019. In 2020 – after an extremely long hearing, and with strong anti-vaccine attendance –  the bill passed the Public Health Committee. Anti-vaccine activists reacted with extreme anger, that manifested, in part, in personal attacks on supporters of the bill. The bill may have advanced then, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut the legislative session short, and the bill had to restart from scratch.

When the bill was proposed again in 2021, it had to go through the public health committee. Anti-vaccine activists mobilized nationally and submitted thousands of requests for oral testimony, and many written testimony – many from out of state.

The Committee members limited the oral hearing – conducted via zoom because the pandemic is still ongoing – to 24 hours. This was in tension with tradition in Connecticut, which allowed for unlimited speaking, but it was substantially more generous than hearings provided elsewhere. Further, the tradition of unlimited speaking likely did not envision the national mobilization of thousands who do not have to be physically present.

Connecticut fall foliage by Kristina Delp on Unsplash

Anti-vaccine activist response

In the circumstances, the compromise of 24 hours was more than generous – though opponents seized on it to claim they were silenced. The complaint was likely disingenuous because there was unlimited opportunity to submit written comment, because opponents did not even try to limit their numbers to Connecticut residents who had a stake in the decision, and in fact, they were maneuvering to game the order of speech to allow out-of-state anti-vaccine leaders like Del Bigtree to speak over Connecticut residents. 

After going through the hearing the committee passed the bill out. The bill went to the House of Representatives, where it was amended – before, it would only have grandfathered school students from seventh grade on, now it grandfathered from kindergarten. The hearing in the House was virtual – and very, very long, going from early morning to late into the night. The bill passed, but not quite on partisan lines: 7 Democrats voted against it, and 4 Republicans for it. Then it went to the Senate.

Both before the House hearing and before the Senate, pro-vaccine groups in Connecticut – including both professional associations and grassroots groups, including parents groups – worked hard to help set the ground. A previous poll by a reputable firm showed strong support in Connecticut for a stronger mandate, and supporters reminded legislators of that. Supporters wrote other strong editorials and worked hard to reach legislators and make the case for the bill. 

From their end, the anti-vaccine movement organized nationally to do a rally around the bill. This tactic was, in part, just because they were running out of options, and in part out of a misconception about events in New Jersey.

In January 2020 a bill to remove New Jersey’s religious exemption failed, and the deliberations were conducted with a large and very rowdy anti-vaccine crowd outside. Anti-vaccine activists left with the impression that their noise and aggressiveness led to the result.

In reality, the issue was elsewhere, with the Senate having trouble getting the votes to start with, and running into issues that led Senate leadership to offer a compromise – a compromise their house rejected. At the end of the day, the loud protestors outside likely had a marginal, if any, effect on the result – but that was not their impression. They have since adopted the view that aggressive intimidation of legislators is the way to go. This approach failed in Colorado in 2020;   it did not work in Connecticut in April 2021, but it did raise a number of concerns, including about potential violence – concerns that, after January 6, 2021, cannot be dismissed.

In the event, there was no violence. According to estimates, several thousand protestors from the anti-vaccine movement arrived in Hartford, Connecticut. One estimate put the number at about 4,000, which, though it seems large, is not so large – as pointed out by my talented colleague Prof. Richard Carpiano, out of all-nation mobilization, the anti-vaccine movement was only able to bring a few thousand.

In the pictures, many of the protestors were not from Connecticut. These included, for example, anti-vaccine leader Del Bigtree from Texas, anti-vaccine activist Joshua Coleman from California, anti-vaccine activist Stephanie Locricchio from New Jersey, and many more. 

There were several jarring notes from the crowd. Someone brought a box of fake Covid-19 vaccine cards to give. A member of the crowd posted in anti-vaccine groups that she tested positive for COVID-19 but came anyway – increasing the already present risk that such a rally of unmasked individuals would turn into a super-spreading event. People had pictures depicting legislators as Nazis. 

During the hearing, anti-vaccine activists gave speeches, and then just chanted and screamed. Chants ranged from “kill the bill” to “open the window” to “you serve us”. The atmosphere appeared festive rather than violent. 

Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash

Connecticut legislature repeals vaccine religious exemption

After a long day of debate, the Connecticut Senate voted to pass the bill, with the grandfathering, 22:14 – a large majority for – and send it to the Governor, who has previously announced that he would sign it. As a result, both houses of the Connecticut legislature repeals the vaccine religious exemption of the school mandates

The bill removed the religious exemption, but grandfathered kids from kindergarten and older that already had one, and allowed students from seventh grade and up at the time it becomes effective to exempt themselves on religious grounds.

The bill broadened the number of professionals who can give a medical exemption to include a physician assistant. The bill will become operative in September 2022, but the date of grandfathering was the day it becomes law, not that date. There is no exception for children with Individualized Education Plans (IEP).

Anti-vaccine activists are mobilizing to try and convince the governor not to sign it. They likely have little time – he can sign it as early as Wednesday, April 28, 2021. They already announced they will sue if it passes, and have been raising money and setting up lawyers for it. They can certainly try, but history is against them – historically, for over a hundred years, no court has found a school immunization mandate unconstitutional, and recent litigation efforts in California and New York failed. 

Update – Governor signs bill into law

Governor Ned Lamont signed the bill into law. Connecticut becomes the sixth state to remove religious exemptions to vaccine mandates – California, Mississippi, West Virginia, New York, and Maine are the other states that have removed these exemptions.


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Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.