HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) – The Connecticut State Senate passed the repeal of religious exemption for childhood vaccinations 22-14 amid protests Tuesday night.
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s signed the bill on Wednesday after previously saying he would absolutely sign it for the children.
“Whatever you do, it has to be health first and safety first. I am told that on religious exemption it was expanding, and expanding, and expanding and you have more and more towns that may be losing their herd immunity, and I want to keep those kindergartners safe,” Gov. Lamont said.
In passing the repeal, Connecticut becomes the sixth state to end religious exemptions for immunizations at schools or daycare facilities. According to legislative staff, only five other states — Maine, California, New York, West Virginia, and Mississippi — do not allow immunization exemptions.
It’s the most controversial topic the Connecticut legislature has taken up in the past couple of years, and it is bringing out one of the biggest crowds of protestors in years.
The bill passed Tuesday as thousands opposing it rallied outside the capitol building. They could be heard from inside the Senate chamber chanting, “My body, my choice.”
Sen. Kevin Kelly (R) said after the vote, “I am very disappointed that the majority Democrats did not listen to middle-class Connecticut.”
Senate President Martin Looney (D), however, said, “There are children who are immunosuppressed and immunocompromised who cannot safely go to school unless they can count on herd immunity of having the vast majority of their classmates safely vaccinated. They are the children who are most at risk, they are the children who are trying to protect here.“
Republicans had a big box full of testimony from a 24-hour marathon virtual hearing that they planned to refer to during the debate. It’s the testimony of all the people who never got to speak after the virtual hearing was shut down.
Republicans also had 100 amendments ready to extend the debate and make their argument.
State Senator Kevin Kelly, the Republican Minority Leader in the Senate, said the debate was emotional.
“This is going to rip the fabric of families apart … Kids in school today are grandfathered, but they have drawn a line whether it’s at seventh grade or kindergarten that we will have kids outside of school who won’t be able to go to school with her siblings.”
The State Department of Public Health says 8,328 kids claimed a religious exemption in the 2019-2020 school year and haven’t received childhood vaccinations.
Democrats in the Senate said the bill to repeal the exemption will protect kids who are immune-compromised.
“The right to have a religious view does not guarantee the right to put your children or other children at risk by having them go to school unvaccinated,” said Senator Looney.
State Sen. Bob Duff added, “We want to make sure our kids remain safe and healthy, and that’s not only their kids but my kids and your kids and everybody else’s kids as well. If the kids go to school and they’re not vaccinated, they’re putting everybody else at risk including the community at risk.”
Republicans say 20,000 kids aren’t compliant with current law, which requires CDC-recommended immunizations to attend school.
If this bill is signed into law, Republicans say non-compliant children will still be allowed to enroll in school as long as they have a doctor’s note saying they plan to “catch up” on shots. They add it’s a burden to struggling families.
“The people who are going to pay the most penalty for being non-compliant are those kids – and the facts show this – that are in our inner cities our poor communities who may not be fully vaccinated because they do not have financial means for the access to healthcare,” said Senate Minority Leader Kelly.
Outside the state capitol Tuesday, 5,000 rallied against the bill. Several groups like Informed Choice CT and Health Choice CT, are raising funds and threatening to sue the state should the exemption be repealed.
From the floor, State Senator Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott) said, “Imagine if those people were allowed in this room and sat in these chairs above us how much impact they would have.”
New York and California have eliminated non-medical exemptions. Lawsuits there have been thrown out.
“There’s a long history of court cases upholding the rights of the state under its powers to protect public health and public safety to have this kind of requirement,” remarked Sen. Looney.
Lawmakers say Connecticut is top 5 in the nation for vaccinating children.
The bill would:
- “Grandfather in” kids grades K –12. They keep their religious exemption.
- The Department of Public Health must create a medical exemption certificate and post it to the state website by Oct. 1, 2021.
- Students who are not currently up on their immunizations can have a doctor sign a “plan” to catch up on shots in order to enroll.
- DPH must release immunization rates for public and private schools every year.
- An 11-member DPH Advisory Committee must be formed to go over issues with non-compliance and medical exemptions.
- Depts. of Public Health, Education & Office of Early Childhood must evaluate data and report back to lawmakers.
- A 20-minute immunization consultation between a patient and their provider will be paid for by insurance.
“The state is saying, ‘You’re not doing your job as a parent and I am stepping in to do it for you.’ That is an overreach that I could never support,” said State Senator Tony Hwang, the Republican ranking member of the legislature’s Public Health Committee.
The bill, HB 6423-An Act Concerning Immunizations, passed with bi-partisan support in the House last week, with a vote of 90-53.
The bill would go into effect September of 2022.