Religious Exemption Sparks Debate Over Process on the Public Health Committee

The legislature’s Public Health Committee today received a petition with 10,000 signatures asking that legislators postpone consideration of a bill that would remove the religious exemption for children’s immunizations until they are able to hold a public hearing in person. 

In an email to State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, that was shared with Connecticut Examiner, Katherine Kraemer, a signatory of the petition, said that having a virtual hearing on this bill “produces many challenges that impede a public’s right of full engagement in a fair legislative process.” 

Those concerns include poor internet connections, access for people who didn’t know how to work Zoom, access for people who need to use their computers for remote work or their children’s remote schooling, lack of transparency in the hearing process and having time cut short or testimonies muted. 

Somers expressed her own concerns to the committee about holding a hearing on the legislation in a remote session.

“Regardless of what we think, there will be people that feel very disenfranchised from the session and the way we have to pursue it going forward,” said Somers. 

The bill in question, “An Act Concerning Immunizations,” would no longer allow children in public school to be exempted from receiving vaccinations on the basis of a religious objection. State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the chair of the committee, said the goal of the bill was to increase the herd immunity within schools and protect children who could not get vaccinated because of a medical condition. 

A version of the same bill presented last year led to a nearly 24-hour hearing where over 500 people registered to testify. 

Somers said in the meeting today that she believed more work needed to be done on the bill to make sure that its purpose was clear. She said she was particularly concerned with the bill’s title, and the idea that it could cause confusion among some people.

“There’s this image or this concept that vaccines are not mandated to go to school, which is absolutely not the case,” said Somers. She added that she was worried that people would think the bill mandated that children get the COVID vaccine. 

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, told CT Examiner that she believed the committee could wait to consider the bill during the following session. She said that since so many of the schools were currently in virtual learning, the issue of herd immunity among students didn’t have the same urgency as it normally would.   

“I’m not sure that in a virtual setting we can do justice to the proposal,” she said. “My concern is that we allow the public the opportunity to get their voices heard.” 

State Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, said she agreed that the virtual format would cause a lot of problems in hearing the vaccine bill. 

“The important work of the committee is to work on COVID-related issues, especially during this time,” Zupkus said at the meeting. 

Steinberg disagreed with the idea that the committee should wait to consider the bill. 

“We had an election in November. And people knew that the people they were electing were going to be — probably– trying to legislate under a pandemic,” he said.

“We’ve already sacrificed an entire year of doing business to the virus. And I would submit that we cannot continue indefinitely to postpone the state’s business, even on controversial bills,” Steinberg said. 

State Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, agreed.

“We’ll have a very short list [of bills], and even shorter meetings, if we don’t do things for fear that there’s somebody who can voice their concern that it’s controversial,” said Tercyak. 

A decision was made to return the bill to the committee with clarifications no later than next week.

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