Freedom of religion, freedom to know the facts

Given the known fact that it takes good information to form a good decision, why are certain Republican state legislators eager to deter the state public health commissioner from testifying on the issue of schoolchildren going unvaccinated against infectious diseases?

Five members of the General Assembly's Conservative Caucus, including state Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, have asked Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell not to accede to majority Democrats' request for her input on removing the religious exemption from immunization laws.

It's true that Freedom of Religion is one of the columns on which American democracy rests, but another is an educated, informed public. They are not mutually exclusive. So what are France and his four colleagues afraid of? That citizens would hear how significant the threat of an epidemic of measles, for instance, would be to the health of children in particular? That legislators might indeed support public safety over individuals' reluctance, as increasing numbers of unvaccinated children go into classrooms and onto playgrounds? The illnesses in question are often called "childhood diseases" because that is when they strike most.

Democrats have said they will bring the question before the next regular session of the assembly, in the spring of 2020. Their request to the commissioner also sought to find out if the agency needs more authority to increase vaccination rates; how to protect students who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons; and how to handle unvaccinated students already enrolled.

France told The Day this week that because the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not declared a national health crisis, the push to remove the exemption is "a political move by people who have an agenda." If there were an impending health crisis, France implied, he might see it differently.

So prevention is not a sufficient reason? It is not warning enough that this year the country had more than 1,000 cases of measles, many of them in Orthodox Jewish communities in neighboring New York state? Or that 102 schools in Connecticut had kindergarten vaccination rates below 95 percent for measles, mumps and rubella, as reported in May? Ninety-five percent is the threshold the CDC considers the minimum. In New London County 10 schools, six public and four non-public, missed the threshold.

It smacks of intellectual dishonesty to claim an exemption on religious grounds, which are hard to find among major religions, until and unless there's the threat of an epidemic. It's as if to say that I will protect my child by letting you immunize yours, which reduces the risk to mine, even though I believe vaccination is morally wrong. It gets me off the hook. But if the risk gets bad enough, I might change my mind anyway.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the right to enforce vaccination laws. The state public health commissioner has been trying to stay out of the civil rights aspect of the question. However, her role as chief monitor of the state's public health unquestionably confers the duty to advise on the risks. She should provide the legislature and the public with her best expert opinion on the medical questions concerning immunization and leave it at that.

Prevention is good medicine, as the experience of decades has shown. The guiding principle for both sides in this issue ought to be, as the president of the Connecticut Medical Society said this month, "continually" looking at policies allowing exemptions and the reasons for the request.

To seek updated public health statistics from the commissioner, in light of sharply increasing cases of measles, is an example of the kind of change that warrants another look at public policy. Increasing claims of religious exemption fueled changes in New York and other states. Connecticut should follow the lead of those other states, which have recognized that religious exemption clauses had become catchalls for other motives for not immunizing.

For those who truly believe that their personal faith does not permit vaccination, it might help to reflect on the tenets of religions that have existed for centuries. They saw smallpox, plague, polio, lethal influenza and the birth defects that came from rubella and other prenatal infections. They do not prohibit vaccinating; in their wisdom, they endorse it. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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