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State Senate votes to end religious exemptions for vaccines

Hartford — A crowd of about 3,000 people rallied outside the state Capitol on Tuesday to protest a vaccine bill the state Senate later voted to pass.

Very few rally attendees wore masks and there was no social distancing. Chants of “kill the bill” and “my body, my choice” echoed across the Capitol grounds throughout the day as senators convened to consider the bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the House last week.

Senators voted 22 to 14 in favor of the proposal to end the longstanding religious exemption to immunization requirements for schools, beginning next year, after nine hours of debate, the Connecticut Mirror reported late Tuesday. Gov. Ned Lamont repeatedly has said he will support the measure, which would not force children to be inoculated but would bar those who refuse vaccines on religious grounds from attending public and private schools in the state.

Ahead of the vote, protesters — many advocating for parents’ right to choose whether or not their children should be vaccinated — held posters that read “parents call the shots,” “state power stops at my kids’ skin” and “I don’t coparent with Lamont.” They shouted into bullhorns, waved American flags and rallied around dozens of speakers who took the stage outside the Capitol building to protest the bill.

Chris Page of Higganum waved an enormous “Don’t tread on me” flag high above the crowd, as his 9-year-old son Waylon played a drum and cheered. The elder Page said that he came to the rally with his wife and son for the sake of his children.

“These are my kids and this is our choice to make,” he said. “Any medical decision should be a parent’s choice to make.”

His wife, Sarah, agreed: “We want the government out of our bodies and out of our choices, let us raise our kids.”

She said that although her two sons were vaccinated at birth, she wouldn’t choose to vaccinate them now, and she and her family would not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. She said she was worried about the consequences of the vaccine bill passing.

“It’s a slippery slope that you’re giving them permission to go down,” she said of the legislature.

A mother from Lisbon who wanted to be identified only by her first name and last initial, Lauren B., attended the rally with her three young sons. As she nursed her newborn, she said she was in Hartford to “support parental choice.”

“I think parents should have the chance to choose their medical care for their children,” she said.

Though she said her eldest sons had some vaccinations, she said she’d be waiting to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “I want more research and more time,” she said. “Show me in two years that it’s fine and I’ll get it.”

The mother of three said she was happy to see such a large crowd on Tuesday. “I think it’s a good turnout and I want America to still be America by the time my kids are 18,” she said.

Valerie Viscount, 27, of Derby also brought her sons to the rally. She said she started speaking out against vaccinations after her oldest son, 7-year-old Jeremiah Mauseby, was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old.

She said she thinks the autism was caused by a vaccine. There is no research that supports that vaccines cause autism.

She said a few years ago, she reviewed her son’s medical records and saw he had received 38 vaccinations. After he was diagnosed with autism, she never allowed him to get another.

“I didn’t really know all the facts at the time and I feel that doctors don’t give you all the facts,” she said. “There are children here that, just like my son, have conditions like autism and seizures that are caused by vaccines. I feel that it’s the over-vaccination that causes these issues.” There is no scientific evidence to support those claims.

Another mother, from Naugatuck, said she felt the bill would discriminate against her sons, whom she would not vaccinate due to their religion. “They’re missing out on an education based on their religious beliefs and that is discrimination,” said the woman, who wanted to be identified only as Ariel R.

About 12:15 p.m., a speaker instructed the crowd to “scream and make some noise” outside the Capitol as the Senate convened. As of 6:30 p.m., senators were still in session as they debated a series of amendments to the bill. Last week, the House of Representatives debated for about 16 hours before passing the bill 90-53, with several Republican representatives crossing party lines to support the bill.

The crowd erupted in applause and cheers again when one of the speakers called for all children to go back to full in-person schooling right away, without masks, shields or social distancing and said that anyone who disagreed had “tested positive for stupid.”

Del Bigtree, CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network and a well-known figure in the anti-vax community, was one of the first to speak outside the Capitol on Tuesday morning and said that he was joining other protesters who traveled to Connecticut for the rally because the bill was “not only a national issue but an international issue.”

He said the bill is a threat to democracy and could set a dangerous precedent. “I think we’ve entered into something even worse than slavery,” he said, to an applauding crowd.

Audrey Butcher, 63, traveled to Hartford from Manhattan with friends Allen Smith and Sheryl Devenny to oppose the bill. “We have to hold the line because this is coming to everyone’s neighborhoods,” she said.

Butcher said she “would rather die” than get the COVID-19 vaccination, which she and Devenny said can cause serious injury and death. They said that they believe one out of every 500 people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine dies immediately. There have been no reports of anyone dying from the COVID-19 vaccine or any scientific research to support the idea that the vaccine can be fatal.

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, who voted against the bill last week, said Tuesday he thinks the bill was likely to pass the Senate. However, “I don’t see any way on God’s green earth that if this is signed into law it survives a court challenge, it’s blatantly unconstitutional on many levels. Both on the religious liberty angle and the right to education angle,” he said.

He said he thinks the state should focus on targeting schools with high rates of unvaccinated students to find a solution to noncompliant students who are not exempt from vaccines due to medical or religious reasons, rather than removing the religious exemptions. The bill, he said, is “not going to help, it’s not going to increase vaccination rates and it’s not going to be sustained in the courts.”

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, voted in favor of the bill. Ahead of the vote, he said, “My thoughts are, I’m a parent and a grandparent and I kind of feel an obligation to my kids and my grandkids that this bill be passed.”

Needleman, who said his own children were vaccinated, said he thinks it’s time for the religious exemption to be repealed. “This is a longstanding exemption that was carved out a long time ago,” he said. “I think we’ve come to see the religious exemption morph into a ‘personal beliefs exemption’ and I don’t think that’s how it was meant to be.”

The senator said that as children return to in-person schooling, he thinks it’s imperative “that they be vaccinated against these childhood diseases that ran rampant when I was a kid. These are dangerous diseases and I don’t think it’s fair to put other kids at risk.”

State Sens. Heather Somers, R-Groton; Paul Formica, R-East Lyme; and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, could not be reached to comment by press time, as the Senate was in session.

A couple of Democratic senators have voiced their opposition to the bill. Osten spoke about how she refused a swine flu vaccine while serving in the military in 1977, pregnant with her daughter, the Associated Press reported. “I can’t support this bill when I had the opportunity to say no,” said Osten, who argued parents have the right to make decisions on behalf of their children.

t.hartz@theday.com

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