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Local legislators differ, cross party lines on ending religious exemption for mandatory school vaccines

With the exception of a few Republicans, southeastern Connecticut legislators mostly supported a bill to end the religious exemption to vaccinations for children in school.

The state House passed the bill 90-53 in the early morning hours on Tuesday. Debate lasted about 16 hours and occasionally became animated and impassioned, especially on issues of religious freedom and educational opportunities, with Republicans arguing that the bill was a form of religious oppression. But Democrats, and some Republicans, argued that public health takes precedence.

State Reps. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford; Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme; and Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, joined Democrats and three additional Republicans in voting for the bill, while seven Democrats joined Republicans in voting against it. An amendment introduced Monday allows families of students currently enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade to be grandfathered in, so they can continue to use the religious exemption.

Republicans opposed to the bill said they appreciated the amendment as a gesture of goodwill toward those who disagree with the legislation. But they criticized the amendment for not including kids in day care or prekindergarten. The bill originally was introduced in part because of how the coronavirus pandemic has accentuated the importance of establishing herd immunity. But coronavirus vaccines were not included in the bill; rubella, diphtheria, measles, mumps, whooping cough and tetanus shots were.

The bill now must be approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont. Lamont repeatedly has said he will support legislation eliminating the religious exemption for vaccinations.

Debate on the bill, both in a 24-hour public hearing earlier this year and another extended public hearing on a similar bill in 2020, has been contentious, and Monday’s debate, spilling over into Tuesday, was no exception.

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, joined state Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton; Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton; Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; Brian Smith, D-Colchester and other Democrats in voting in favor of the bill. Nolan acknowledged the difficulty of his choice in a video he posted on Facebook just before 2 a.m. Tuesday.

“One of the downfalls of the bill is that it does remove the religious exemption," he said, "hard pill to swallow on that one, but this bill does keep our children in school safe, especially those who have some kind of immune-deficiency problem.”

In a comment he posted with the video, Nolan added that though he wished there were more compromise on the bill, and he struggled with eliminating the exemption, “I voted in favor of the bill understanding it was best protection for kids (especially) after seeing so many families hurt by the spread of COVID-19.”

“We see trends that are telling us that for whatever reason, some folks don’t trust the news media anymore, and they’re getting their information from different places. We think that’s directly resulting in these spikes of folks choosing not to take vaccines,” de la Cruz said Tuesday. “I don’t think the numbers really reflect that they’re all religious exemptions, it was more about people being hesitant to take the vaccine.”

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, who voted against the bill, spoke in support of an amendment that ultimately failed but would have required any vaccines added to the vaccine schedule to be approved by the General Assembly.

“Public policy should be made by the members of this legislature, all of them. It should not exclude the vast majority of the people of this state,” he said. “The people that are elected to represent their constituents in this state should have the ability to debate and comment and vote any time additional substances, additional vaccinations, are added to the list."

Several other Republicans from the region took issue with the bill. State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said last week that the bill’s fiscal analysis was significantly off base, and that the bill “carries obvious if not troubling budgetary implications.”

“As a co-equal branch of government, our charge is not to merely look at legislative proposals and determine if we have enough money in the budget, rather we have a much broader obligation to the people of our state to ensure the accuracy of the cost of any new policy and whether or not the most accurate fiscal information is being used for those proposals,” he said of the Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, voted no on the bill, as well. He said Tuesday that he supports getting vaccinated in general, and he urged his constituents to do so.

“The idea of the bill, to get vaccination rates where they need to be for everybody’s public health, I support 100%. But, the method at which they went about trying to achieve it was so wrought with problems, that I just couldn’t get to a yes vote,” he said.

Howard said the state has refrained from and should have tried every avenue to raise vaccination rates before eliminating the religious exemption.

“We haven’t reached a point with all the data and what we’ve tried, or haven’t tried, where we need to start to infringe upon those rights of an individual for the greater public good. I just don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “You have to say, at least to this legislator, ‘We have a potential public health crisis, and we need some certain concessions to address it, we’ve tried everything else,’ now you’ve got my attention. But they couldn’t say that.”

But three area Republicans — McCarty, Carney and Cheeseman — sided with Democrats on the issue, albeit with some reservations.

Cheeseman voted in favor of the bill but during debate encouraged her colleagues to “open our hearts, that we listen to the arguments, that we take the amendments that attempt to improve this.”

“Vaccines, yes, provide huge health advantages. That’s the science. So much of the discussion today is not looking at science, at the mind, but it’s looking at the heart,” Cheeseman said. “Listening to the public testimony from the parents who were passionate, passionate about protecting their child who was undergoing chemotherapy and could not receive a vaccination. Equally passionate were those thousands who testified that the religious exemption for them was so important to their spiritual and physical health. We are talking about what’s in people’s hearts, and I am not going to doubt the sincerity of any of that.”

McCarty, too, was hesitant in her yes vote. But her bottom-line belief in children needing vaccinations, and her roles on the Public Health and Education committees, informed her decision.

“First let me state that I am a firm believer in vaccination for our schoolchildren. When our children come to school, they need to be in a safe environment; we have a percentage of children who are immunocompromised and are not able to be vaccinated,” she said Monday. She supported the K-12 grandfather amendment because “We would have a true health crisis on our hands if those children were unenrolled from school. We’re talking in the neighborhood of 30,000 children.”

According to the state Department of Public Health, New London County had a 95.4% vaccination rate in 2019-20, second only to Middlesex County’s 96% among all schools with a kindergarten program. Out of these schools, 891 religious exemptions were reported, 72 of which came from New London County.

Among all schools with a seventh grade, New London led all counties with a 95.6% vaccination rate. Out of these schools, 645 religious exemptions were reported, 41 of which came from New London County.

McCarty added Tuesday that she voted to “protect all of our students,” although she felt the legislation was flawed in other ways.

s.spinella@theday.com

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