State Senate votes to repeal religious exemption for school vaccinations

HARTFORD — About 4,000 people surrounded the state Capitol Tuesday in a daylong attempt to derail an inevitable Senate vote that will force new students in all Connecticut schools and child care programs to be vaccinated by September 2022.

The bill was approved 22-14, at around 9 p.m., after nearly nine hours of debate, with two Democrats joining the 12-member Republican minority, who charged that the legislation was an example of government overreach and a violation of civil rights.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the state is perfectly within its role to protect public safety.

“It is an assertion of the state’s need and right to protect its vulnerable children from the possibility of illness and for those children to pass it along to other children who come to school already immunocompromised, immunosuppressed and dependent upon other children to be safely vaccinated so that they may safely attend school,” Looney said summing up the debate. “This is not irresponsible and it is not oppressive by the government. It is a reasonable protection of public health.”

Protesters stood outside the Capitol chanting “Kill the bill ... Kill the bill,” for a full 12 hours prior to the vote, and for about a half-hour afterward. The generally festive crowd anticipated the passage of the repeal of the state’s religious exemption, but made its presence known on the issue of parental rights and the problems they have finding doctors to approve medical exemptions for childhood vaccinations.

“I feel that a scary narrative is being pushed in this building,” said Amy Mallardi, 45, of Oxford, who doesn’t want to be ordered to get all recommended inoculations for her youngest child. “The government is now mandating every vaccine on the vaccine schedule.”

Crowds, including hundreds of children, began rallying at the state Capitol building during the morning rush hour, lining Capitol Avenue and the entrance to the adjacent Legislative Office Building, waving signs saying “Mandate freedom of choice,” “Organic kids matter,” “Parents call the shots” and “Stop the tyranny.”

By 11, while the drizzle yielded to sunshine, the peaceful crowd had drifted and massed to the north entrance of the Capitol, spilling down into Bushnell Park, waiting for speakers brought in from around the country. LeeAnn Ducat of Woodstock, the founder of Informed Choice USA, who hosted the event, praised the crowd’s behavior, but stressed the seriousness of the occasion, called the Rise Up Rally.

Ducat said many people at the rally were not opposed to vaccinating their children. “Pro-choice doesn’t always mean anti-vaccine,” Ducat said. “A lot of the people here actually did vaccinate their kids and then stopped when they thought something might be going wrong, and their doctors may or may not have agreed with them. And their belief systems did not encourage continuing upon that schedule.”

Shortly after 11 a.m., Ducat grabbed a microphone to introduce House Republicans who last week voted against the bill. The dozen or so opponents enjoyed large ovations.

“I do believe in miracles,” Ducat shouted into the microphone as she pondered the inevitability.

Victoria Lawlor, of Milford, a mother of two school-age kids, said she has been coming to the Capitol since 2015 to protest efforts to crack down on the religious exemption, which was adopted along with the medical exemption in 1959.

Instead of focusing on the 8,000 or so students who claim the religious exemption, Lawlor said lawmakers should target the more than 20,000 students who are noncompliant when it comes to proof of vaccination

Under the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last week, and which Gov. Ned Lamont may sign into law as soon as Wednesday, only medical exemptions will be allowed in the statewide student population of about 574,000.

Republicans, with a 24-12 minority in the Senate, solidly opposed the measure. “This bill does not give the middle class much relief,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, stressing that Connecticut is among the top states for school vaccines in the country, but at the bottom on job and personal income growth.

Early in the debate Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague and Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, said they would also vote against the measure. During the afternoon, Bradley appeared briefly before the demonstrators, stressing the need for lawmakers to protect civil liberties.

By mid-afternoon, Dr. Gregory Shangold, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society reiterated the profession’s support of the bill.

“The Connecticut State Medical Society believes all children should be vaccinated unless medically advised, and a decision by the state Senate to follow expert medical recommendations and remove the “non-medical” exemption for immunizations will allow us to move forward and work together to make Connecticut a healthier and safer state for all that live here,” Shangold said in statement.

“It’s unfortunate we have a vocal minority of people who don’t believe in the science we’ve taken for granted for so long,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who has supported the legislation. “We do believe in health and science and safety for the residents of our state.”

State Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Meriden, co-chairwoman of the legislative Public Health Committee, who introduced the bill, noted that in the 2013 school year, among the 96,000 new entrants there were 316 whose parents claimed the religious exemption. By the 2019 school year, 83,000 new pupils had 1,536 religious exemptions.

Of the 3,256 schools, 134 have vaccination rates below the 95 percent recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I believe in the science,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield. “But to me this debate is much more in understanding the role of government in individual choice. We are creating a distinct separation and in some cases the segregation within someone’s family. I believe in the principle that an individual’s right to body choices should ultimately reign supreme.”

Earlier drafts of the legislation would have created an outright ban on any unvaccinated students except those excused for medical reasons. During the compromise among majority Democrats on the Public Health Committee, children in seventh grade and above would be allowed to remain in school. It was amended further when the bill reached the House of Representatives last week, extending the grandfather provision for all currently K-12 students.

According to the state Department of Public Health, there were 8,328 children whose parents took the religious exemption in the 2019 school year. Currently, Maine, California, West Virginia and Mississippi have ended religious exemptions.

The coronavirus pandemic derailed the debate last year, with an irony lost on few people that events at the Capitol are back in part because of a new vaccine during a pandemic that has been linked to 8,067 Connecticut fatalities.

Tuesday’s rally brought prominent voices in the anti-vaccine community, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the assassinated U.S. senator.

“I will get a vaccine when they do a safety study that shows that vaccinated individuals are healthier than unvaccinated individuals,” said Kennedy, whose Instagram was recently blocked for spreading misinformation about vaccines.

In contrast to earlier anti-mandatory vaccine protests, which were largely attended Connecticut parents, Tuesday’s event, with sponsors including Health Choice 4 Action CT, drew buses full of protesters, and people from Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana.