A vaccination shot is prepared. Photo by Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz/U.S. Air Force/Creative Commons

Religious vaccine exemption bill stokes controversy in Connecticut

(RNS) — A proposed bill that would prohibit parents from citing religious or philosophical beliefs when refusing to vaccinate their school-age children stoked uproar in Connecticut this week, with some protesting the legislation and others voicing support for immunizations.

According to the Hartford Courant, hundreds of demonstrators descended on the Connecticut capitol on Wednesday (Feb. 19) and Thursday to express both support and opposition to the bill, which was crafted by state legislators in the wake of the measles outbreak that rocked the New York Jewish community in 2019.

Some wore stickers that read “My Faith says Do No Harm” or waved signs with slogans such as “Our rights. Medical freedom. Religious freedom.” Others held placards that read “Vaccines work. They are safe. Everything else is a lie.”

Parents opposed the bill stayed inside the Capitol Wednesday night and into Thursday morning as debate over the issue raged, with some becoming emotional during testimonies.

Supporters of the bill — which would still allow for medical exemptions from immunizations for schoolchildren — say it is partially a response to an uptick in religious exemptions in the state. The state’s Department of Public Health estimated that 7,800 children had religious exemptions in the 2018-2019 school year, a 25% increase from the year before.

If passed, the bill would make Connecticut the sixth state to eliminate non-medical exemptions, joining California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia.

Hundreds of pieces of public testimony have been submitted, many of which pointed out that religious freedom is a right guaranteed in both the Connecticut and U.S. Constitutions. 

A supporter of vaccinations holds up a sign while watching a public hearing on vaccine exemption legislation on close circuit television, in an overflow room at the Connecticut Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Proponents of ending the exemption, including the Department of Public Health commissioner and Gov. Ned Lamont, have voiced concern about the growing number of religious exemptions in Connecticut and the potential risk that could place on the rest of the population. (AP Photo/Sue Haigh)

Among the testimonies was one attributed to Rev. Donna Cassity, a United Church of Christ minister.

“I am a clergy (member) ... and teach religious freedom and beliefs which should not be taken away by government,” the public letter reads. “Freedom of religion and the rights of parents to choose proper health care for their children needs to remain in the hands of the parents and with their provider.”

A spokesperson from the UCC noted that the denomination's ruling body is "silent on the matter of vaccination and immunization" but that affiliated groups such as the UCC Faith Community Nurse Network have published articles explaining the benefits of vaccination and immunization.

Another testimony attributed to Stephanie Malkin of North Branford, Connecticut, said that "there have been unsubstantiated claims that parents in Connecticut are misusing religious exemptions" and argued that a person asking for an exemption does not have to belong to a "recognized or organized" religion.

"Personally held religious beliefs are protected as well," the statement reads.

According to the Courant, medical professionals who testified raised concerns that the bill's opponents were basing their objections on misinformation about the safety and viability of vaccines.

“I want to clearly, vociferously, state that vaccines are highly effective and safe,” said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

Very few faiths condemn vaccinations outright. Christian Scientists often rely on prayer for healing, but the group published a statement in February 2019 clarifying that avoiding immunizations “isn’t a dogmatic thing” for members and that they are “free to make their own choices on all life-decisions … including whether or not to vaccinate their children.” In 2019, experts in the Orthodox Jewish community told the Forward that the opposition to immunizations is “not a Hasidic problem, (but) an anti-vaccination problem.”

Catholic bishops of Connecticut issued a joint statement regarding the bill in January backing the use of vaccines. But the group stopped short of supporting the repeal of religious exemptions, saying such a thing should only be done in the face of “legitimate, grave public health concerns.”

“There is no religious teaching against the use of these vaccines for Catholics,” read the statement, which was signed by clerics such as Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport and Bishop Michael Cote of Norwich. “The Catholic Church encourages the use of vaccines, and our Connecticut Catholic schools require mandatory vaccinations.”

The bill continues to work its way through the state legislature. The public health committee is slated to meet on Friday but not expected to vote at that time.