House votes 90-53 to eliminate religious exemptions for mandatory school immunizations

Photo of Ken Dixon

HARTFORD — After 16 hours of sometimes heated debate over the rights of parents and the importance of public health, the state House voted 90-53 early Tuesday to eliminate Connecticut’s so-called religious exemption for school children whose parents do not want them vaccinated for childhood diseases.

The bill, which was finally approved at 2:55 a.m., next heads to the Senate. Debate began at about 10:53 a.m. on Monday in a socially distant House chamber that rarely had more than 20 members in it at any one time, while most lawmakers stayed in their offices around the Capitol complex as the pandemic continued to underscore issues of public health.

Five Republicans joined majority Democrats in the final vote, while seven Democrats, mostly urban Democrats including Rep. Robyn Porter of New Haven, Anne Hughes of Easton, David Michel of Stamford and Jack Hennessy and Andre Baker of Bridgeport, voted against it.

Rep. William Petit of Plainville, a physician who is the ranking member of the Public Health Committee, voted in favor of the legislation, which Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday that he supports.

Illustrating an apparent split among majority Democrats, an amendment was submitted Monday to allow about 8,000 currently enrolled school kids to retain the exemption. Under the original bill, only children already-enrolled in grades seven through 12 would be allowed to remain unvaccinated.

After more than three hours of debate, with sometimes emotional criticism from conservative Republicans including Rep. Mitch Bolinsky of Newtown, a test vote on the issue passed easily, 106-36, with eight absent. That vote indicated the likely passage of the bill, depending how long GOP lawmakers wanted to talk about the legislation.

Ten liberal Democrats opposed the proposal in the first vote, out of support for its original intent to allow only seventh through twelfth graders to remain unvaccinated. But 26 Republicans joined Democrats in favor of the legislation, indicating the possibility of eventual bipartisan passage. Republicans planned as many as 47 amendments, signaling that the debate could continue throughout the day and into the evening.

“I would sign it,” said Gov. Ned Lamont during his daily news conference in the State Capitol. “We have learned over and over again over the last six months that vaccines are safe.”

Sixth-term Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, said she was worried about the potential for a major public health crisis in the school system, charging that the Department of Public Health “kept their head in the sand,” while the state Education Department “dodged important questions” and declined to meet with Republicans during the legislative process.

“As a parent of public school children and as a policy maker I have to make this decision today and I know many will disagree with it,” said Carpino said, who also voted for the final bill. “But I am voting today and supporting this amendment to prevent a public health emergency. The best way to address an emergency is to avoid it.”

After the preliminary vote, at about 2:20 p.m., a motion to sidetrack and send the bill to the Education Committee, was offered by Bolinsky. It was rejected in a mainly partisan vote.

“I know the passions on this bill are extremely high and raw,” said Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, who sided with Democrats in the early vote. But he stressed the need to provide children with a public education. “We are going to be throwing kids out of school,” he warned. An estimated 800 kindergarten and newly enrolling children would be required to show proof of measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccines, in September 2022, if the legislation becomes law.

“We need to ensure that these children stay in school,” said Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, who introduced the Democratic compromise to allow all current students under the religious exemption to remain.

While he voted in favor of the expansion of exemptions from the original bill to include all current students, Rep,. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, noted that declining vaccination rates statewide are a warning, particularly at the elementary school level. “I have concerns about grandfathering children all the way down to the kindergarten level because of the data,” he said. “It is not an emergency today, but everyone will tell you that good public health policy is proactive.”

Steinberg said he hoped that if the bill becomes law, more families will foster better relationships with family doctors and discuss their concerns that could lead to medical exemptions, which would still be allowed under the bill. Currently there are about 1,200 school kids with medical exemptions.

“We need to act and act before we have an epidemic, an epidemic that we can prevent,” Steinberg said. “No one wants to declare any student ineligible for attending school, but efforts by health care professionals and educators to educate families about vaccines have been unable to compete with the fear instilled by the misinformation net. There are many well-meaning families refusing to vaccinate because they bought into slickly produced presentations which question safety and efficacy while inciting fear of Big Pharma and secret cabals intent on inserting microchip made it really hard to have a calm and constructive conversation on the subject.”

Republicans critical of the bill charged that Connecticut has the fifth-highest rate in the nation for students with childhood vaccinations and the legislation wasn’t needed. They added that there is no enforcement system in the legislation to assure compliance.

During the 2019-20 school year, 8,328 kids had the religious exemption, including 5,667 in K thru 6, and 2,661 in the 7 through 12 group. But more than 20,000 other children in the 550,000-student public school system are non-compliant for proof of vaccination.

“Today we will be voting on one bill and only one bill is our expectation,” Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told reporters during a morning news conference. The issue was discussed during a House Democratic caucus on Sunday night.

Pending a special election in Stamford, Democrats have a 96-54 majority in the House, and the first two hours of the debate, Republican opposition focused on religious freedom and charges over legislative overreach.

“It feels like we’re trying to solve a problem that has nothing to do with our problem here,” said Bolinsky, R-Newtown. “To me this is segregating the children and families in the state of Connecticut.”

In recent years a growing number of parents have opted out of the inoculations, reducing the immunity of school populations in about 120 schools throughout Connecticut below the recommended 95 percent. Steinberg, who as co-chairman of the Public Health Committee introduced the overall bill, said the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to build up community immunity.

“These are potential vectors for disease in the future,” Steinberg said, stressing that over the last seven year, the rate of unvaccinated children in the school system has risen from 1.4 percent to 2.3 percent, with last year at a 2.5-percent rate. “To be proactive in this regard means we get ahead of it.”

“This bill protects all Connecticut residents,” said Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan.

In 2020, the legislation drew thousands of opponents to the State Capitol complex in a 23-hour public hearing before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the General Assembly in mid-March. Two months ago, the legislative Public Health Committee held a 24-hour virtual public hearing on the issue. Last week the bill was approved by the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

The advocacy group Vaccine Freedom CT held an early evening rally in opposition to the legislation at the State Capitol. About 50 people, most of whom were unmasked, gathered outside the south entrance of the Capitol carrying signs in opposition to the bill. They chanted “My child, my choice,” outside a portable steel barrier, while State Capitol police watched on.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, predicted that if the law passes, it will set off a class-action lawsuit. If approved, Connecticut would join Maine, California, New York and Mississippi in not having religious exemptions.

By around 3:30, about four-and-a-half hours after the start of the debate, the first GOP amendment was introduced. It would give the power to approve new childhood vaccines to the General Assembly, but it was defeated most along party lines, 92-52.

“This is not a good policy for us,” Steinberg said recommending rejection of the proposal.

Another Republican proposal, submitted shortly after 5 p.m., would allow parents of private school children to claim the religious exemption. That failed 91-54. A third GOP fell was defeated 96-49 at 7:30 p.m.

In a statement later in the afternoon, Dr. Robert Russo, executive director of the Connecticut State Medical Society, stressed the organization’s support for the overall bill.

“As medical professionals, scientists and members of the community, physicians firmly believe that the best way to protect Connecticut’s children from dangerous and preventable infectious diseases is to ensure that all residents receive adequate and appropriate immunizations,” Russo said in a statement.

Note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the states that do not have religious exemptions.