Bill to end religious exemptions for vaccines clears Connecticut panel

HARTFORD (AP) — A Connecticut legislative committee voted Monday to advance legislation that would eliminate the state's religious exemption for certain childhood vaccines, despite vocal opposition from hundreds of parents and children who packed the Connecticut Capitol complex in hopes of persuading lawmakers to defeat the bill.

The legislation narrowly cleared the General Assembly's Public Health Committee by a vote of 14-11, prompting chants of “we will remember in November" after the tally was announced. Some opponents of the bill booed and shouted at the state legislators, who had voted yes, as they left the hearing room and tried to get into elevators to their offices.

Two Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill, which now awaits further action in the House of Representatives. It's considered one of the most contentious issues of the three-month legislative session, fueling concerns about the safety of vaccines and the curtailment of parental and religious rights. It's unclear whether the legislation, which was amended Monday to grandfather in those students who already have religious exemptions, will ultimately clear the General Assembly in an election year for state lawmakers.

Legislators said they expect additional changes will be made to the bill in the coming weeks that take into account some of the concerns raised by parents during a marathon public hearing last week that lasted more than 21 hours.

“It's not the end of the road for this bill,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who helped to work on Monday's compromise. Besides grandfathering in students who are currently not vaccinated, the amended bill also makes it clear that lawmakers want doctors to consider autoimmune disorders for medical exemptions, and require more detailed immunization data collection.

“We're doing our very best. We're trying to figure it out,” said Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, who pledged to continue negotiating the bill as the session continues.

Supportive state lawmakers, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and the state's Department of Public Health commissioner have called for ending Connecticut's religious exemption after becoming concerned by a recent uptick in religious exemptions for measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations reported by public and private schools for kindergarten students. If the religious exemption is scrapped, the state will still allow for medical exemptions.

Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, who said he opposes “forced vaccines,” insisted there is no compromise that he will support.

Some Republican members of the committee, including a physician, said they support vaccinations but accused the Democrats of trying to rush through problematic legislation in a short session.

“I think we need to look at this issue, but I think we need to go more slowly,” said Rep. William Petit Jr., R-Plainville, a doctor who said he supports vaccines. Petit said he worries what will happen to the students who are currently not vaccinated and the consequences of grandfathering those students, starting from kindergarten through grade 12.

“I think we really need to back off and really look at this issue more completely,” Petit said. “There's a lot of small details that we can perhaps get into.”

Informed Choice of CT, a group that has been helping to lead efforts to retain the religious exemption, issued messages throughout the day on social media that called on parents to contact their legislators and urge them to defeat the bill, saying rights of their children “are not negotiable." Hundreds of parents who filled the Legislative Office Building, many pushing baby carriages, chanted “kill the bill” throughout the day, as lawmakers worked behind the scenes on the latest version of the bill.

State Capitol Police made one arrest in connection with Monday's protest at the Legislative Office Building, charging one protester with interference with the General Assembly and disorderly conduct.

 

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