AG’s view sought on vac­cine de­bate

Lawmaker aims to elim­i­nate state’s re­li­gious ex­emp­tion rule

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris­tine Stu­art

HART­FORD — House Ma­jor­ity Leader Matt Ritter meant it when he said he wanted to vote on get­ting rid of Con­necti­cut’s re­li­gious ex­emp­tion for vac­cines.

At the end of March, Ritter wrote At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Tong to ask for a for­mal le­gal opin­ion “re­gard­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of elim­i­nat­ing the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion for re­quired im­mu­niza­tions.”

Pre-school and school-aged chil­dren can present a state­ment say­ing they are not im­mu­nized be­cause it would be “con­trary to the re­li­gious beliefs of such a child or the par­ents or guardian of such child.”

Ritter points to the re­cent measles out­breaks in New York and the Pa­cific North­west as the rea­son the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion should be elim­i­nated.

“As you may know three states — Cal­i­for­nia, Mis­sis­sippi and West Vir­ginia — cur­rently do not have a re­li­gious or philo­soph­i­cal ex­emp­tion for re­quired school im­mu­niza­tions.

“In ad­di­tion, the lack of ei­ther ex­emp­tion has been chal­lenged and up­held un­der fed­eral con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples,” Ritter wrote in his let­ter.

A spokes­woman for Tong said they have re­ceived the re­quest and, “we are re­view­ing rel­e­vant law and ex­pect to de­liver an opin­ion some­time next month.”

In the mean­time, 44 law­mak­ers, 43 Repub­li­cans and one Demo­crat, who sup­port the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion also wrote a let­ter to Tong out­lin­ing why un­der fed­eral and state law it would be il­le­gal to get rid of the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion and why it’s un­nec­es­sary.

“Con­necti­cut cur­rently has one of the high­est vac­ci­na­tion rates in the coun­try at 98.2 per­cent, far greater than the 75-86 per­cent re­quired to achieve herd im­mu­nity for mumps, the 80-86 per­cent re­quired for po­lio, and the 83-94 per­cent re­quired for measles,” the 44 law­mak­ers said.

“Get­ting rid of the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion would ‘have the ef­fect of giv­ing pref­er­ence to some re­li­gious be­liev­ers over oth­ers, and pro­hibit­ing chil­dren from freely ex­er­cis­ing their re­li­gious beliefs.” Law­mak­ers’ let­ter to the state at­tor­ney gen­eral in sup­port of re­li­gious ex­emp­tion

“The use of the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion in Con­necti­cut, there­fore, poses ab­so­lutely no threat to pub­lic health or safety.”

Ritter said those might be the statewide rates, but he thinks they should be able to get im­mu­niza­tion in­for­ma­tion by school dis­trict.

The De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health does not pub­licly dis­sem­i­nate that in­for­ma­tion.

“Un­der Conn. Gen. Stat. sec. 19a-25, the De­part­ment can­not pub­lish, make avail­able or dis­sem­i­nate re­ports of the find­ings of stud­ies of mor­bid­ity and mor­tal­ity (such as a school or school dis­trict’s im­mu­niza­tion rates) or any other doc­u­ments that in­clude iden­ti­fi­able health data or any item, col­lec­tion, or group­ing of health data that makes the in­di­vid­ual or or­ga­ni­za­tion sup­ply­ing it or de­scribed in it iden­ti­fi­able (e.g. in the case of the an­nual im­mu­niza­tion sur­vey, a spe­cific school),” the de­part­ment said in re­sponse to a CTNewsJunkie Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest.

“In ad­di­tion, the same statute pre­cludes the de­part­ment from pro­duc­ing re­ports that do not con­tain iden­ti­fi­able health data in re­sponse to spe­cific re­quests since do­ing so would re­sult in link­ing the re­port to an iden­ti­fi­able in­di­vid­ual or or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Ritter said he’s work­ing with Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Martin Looney to pass leg­is­la­tion that would give the pub­lic ac­cess to that school dis­trict-based in­for­ma­tion.

He said he hopes it’s 98.2 per­cent in each school dis­trict, but at the mo­ment they don’t know and par­ents de­serve to have that in­for­ma­tion. He said once they know if there are any “hot spots” of un­vac­ci­nated chil­dren then they can eval­u­ate the in­for­ma­tion and come up with a plan for leg­is­la­tion in 2020.

How­ever, those who sup­port the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion don’t trust that law­mak­ers won’t move for­ward this year with leg­is­la­tion.

“It is our firm be­lieve that the elim­i­na­tion of the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion would vi­o­late the First and Four­teenth Amend­ments of the United States Con­sti­tu­tion, at least five pro­vi­sions of Con­necti­cut’s Con­sti­tu­tion, and at least three Con­necti­cut Gen­eral Statutes,” the 44 law­mak­ers said in their let­ter to Tong.

They said get­ting rid of the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion would “have the ef­fect of giv­ing pref­er­ence to some re­li­gious be­liev­ers over oth­ers, and pro­hibit­ing chil­dren from freely ex­er­cis­ing their re­li­gious beliefs. One is not able to ‘freely ex­er­cise’ his or her re­li­gion if that ex­er­cise re­sults in the loss of the right to a free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.”

Es­sen­tially, “Par­ents would be forced to choose be­tween vi­o­lat­ing their sin­cerely held re­li­gious beliefs and gain­ing ac­cess to a free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion,” the 44 law­mak­ers wrote.

At a press con­fer­ence in March, Ritter said that any un­vac­ci­nated child could be home­schooled.

“By deny­ing ac­cess to a pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and its re­lated pro­gram­ming and ac­tiv­i­ties on the ba­sis of re­li­gious be­lief, cer­tain groups of peo­ple are pro­vided with more rights and priv­i­leges than oth­ers, in vi­o­la­tion of the equal pro­tec­tion clauses of the U.S. and Con­necti­cut Con­sti­tu­tions,” the 44 law­mak­ers who sup­port keep­ing the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion wrote.

They went onto write that “the right to a free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is guar­an­teed by our Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Tak­ing the is­sue of re­li­gion and equal pro­tec­tion fur­ther, they said an­other Con­necti­cut statute makes it “il­le­gal to deny any­one ‘full and equal ac­com­mo­da­tions in any place of pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tion’ on the ba­sis of ‘creed’,” and creed is a much broader term than “re­li­gion,” the 44 law­mak­ers wrote in their let­ter to Tong. They ad­mit­ted that Ritter could add “not­with­stand­ing” the state statutes elim­i­nat­ing the re­li­gious ex­emp­tion would vi­o­late, but they opined he can’t do that when it comes to the Con­necti­cut Con­sti­tu­tion.

The let­ters to Tong come around the same time as Con­necti­cut’s third con­firmed measles case this year.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Tong

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