Connecticut Senate plans final vote next week on bill that would eliminate religious exemption for school vaccinations

Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant
·4 min read

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney said Tuesday he expects to call a vote next week on a bill to eliminate the religious exemption for mandatory school vaccinations.

Looney’s announcement came the same day the state House of Representatives approved the bill after a marathon 16-hour debate.

The measure contained a compromise that would allow students who have existing exemptions to keep them. The final vote in the House came just before 3 a.m. when the measure was approved by a 90-53 margin with seven members absent.

Lawmakers were sharply divided along partisan lines with the Democratic leaders who control the chamber and most rank-and-file members strongly supporting the bill while Republicans were largely united against it. Ultimately, seven Democrats voted against the bill and five Republicans supported it.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, a Democrat from East Hartford, said policymakers have a responsibility to do what they believe is in the best interest of public health. “We’ve debated this issue for a couple of years, we’ve followed our established processes, we have been transparent,” he said early Tuesday. “And that is why we are acting today.”

Dozens of Republican lawmakers expressed opposition to the measure, asserting that it represents government overreach and would result in thousands of children being denied their constitutional right to a public education.

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, a Republican from Tolland, described her opposition to lifting the exemption as rooted in feminism. She expressed concern that women’s careers would be hurt by the requirement that unvaccinated children be barred from public schools.

“As a woman, I am fiercely, fiercely protective over the autonomy to make my own decisions 1/4 u201a” Nuccio said. “I am fiercely a proponent of my body, my choice ... this extends to my decisions as a parent ... nobody gets to have autonomy over my body or my child’s body.”

Few issues have been as contentious and polarizing as the effort to rescind the religious exemption, which has been enshrined in state law since 1959. Earlier this spring, hundreds of protestors gathered at the Capitol to decry the proposal, saying they, not the government, should determine whether their children receive a vaccine.

The overwhelming majority of parents follow the state’s immunization rules but in some pockets of Connecticut, vaccination rates have dipped in recent years, leading some public health experts to worry about community immunity.

Only a small percentage of children in Connecticut are not vaccinated, but those numbers have been growing in recent years. About 98% of students in seventh grade and above have been vaccinated, officials said, and only 0.5% of students have medical exemptions, which are separate from religious exemptions.

The bill covers required measles, mumps and a host of other vaccinations for students in both public and private schools, along with commercial day care centers and day care in homes. The COVID-19 vaccine is not among the mandated inoculations at this time. (Parents of children who have a compromised immune system or another underlying medical condition that can put them at risk of an adverse outcome from a vaccine could still secure a medical exemption from a physician.)

A previous version of the bill called for a “grandfather” clause only for students in seventh grade and above. But as part of a compromise, Democrats amended the measure to include all students in kindergarten and above.

Rep. Charlie Stallworth, a Democrat from Bridgeport and an ordained minister, said the the religious exemption is often “misappropriated” by people who are opposed to immunizations for reasons that have nothing to do with faith.

“I’m for the freedom of religion whatever your religion is,’' Stallworth said. But, he added, “if you’re going to use a religious [exemption], you have to a proper norm and a point of departure and a systematic sense to it and not just be able to walk out and say ‘it’s my religion.’’

If approved by the Senate, where Democrats also hold a majority, the bill will go to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk. He has expressed support for eliminating the religious exemption and is expected to sign it.

“We saw that it was a very strong vote in the legislature, which I consider in support of vaccinations and doing everything we can to encourage in this case students to get vaccinated,” Lamont said Tuesday. “I think it sends a strong signal which I appreciate: get vaccinated. That’s how we get COVID in the rearview mirror.”

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com.