New lawsuit filed over repeal of religious exemption

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One of many protests at the State Capitol against the law to eliminate the religious exemption to child vaccination requirements for public schools. Credit: Christine Stuart/CTNewsJunkie

This week, two families filed a lawsuit against Governor Ned Lamont and his education and public health commissioners asking the court to allow schools to maintain the religious exemption for childhood vaccines, which was repealed by lawmakers in April 2021.

The lawsuit, filed in Stamford Superior Courtseeks a preliminary injunction and is different from previous lawsuits filed to have the law struck down – all of which have failed.

“We don’t believe the repeal bill will survive rigorous scrutiny, the judicial standard required in Connecticut,” attorney Kevin Barry said Thursday. “The right to education and the right to free exercise of religion are both ‘eternal’ rights, according to the State Constitution.”

The lawsuit claims that the repeal violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the right to free public education. Plaintiffs’ attorneys say Connecticut is one of 21 states with a religious freedom restoration law and the only state that has sought to repeal the religious exemption. They say it requires a higher level of judicial review.

New York, California, and Maine have also repealed religious exemption laws, but these states do not have state RFRA laws.

House Speaker Matt Ritter said Thursday that the law is now 15 months old and is “established law.”

He said there was no legislation this recent legislative session to undo the repeal.

He said the law does not prohibit anyone from exercising their right to their religion, but it protects all children from common childhood illnesses that spread in community settings.

Keira Spillane of Orange and Anna Kehle of Greenwich are the two plaintiffs in the case.

Spillane’s nursery school was grandfathered under the law passed in 2021, but her 3-year-old brother will not be when he starts school in the fall of 2022.

Kehele has an 8-year-old with a religious exemption and her 4-year-old, who is attending pre-K, will have her religious exemption withdrawn if she wants to start school in the fall of 2022.

Both families say they will not be able to send their youngest children to school without violating their religious beliefs.

“The plaintiffs also oppose the forced vaccination of their children because it is their sincere religious belief that our bodies are our temples of the Holy Spirit and vaccines desecrate the sacred temples of their children’s bodies by altering their innate immune system forever,” the lawsuit states.

Ritter said the law does not mandate vaccination.

“We don’t need a lawyer from New York coming to Connecticut to tell us what to do and challenge our public health laws. But unfortunately I’m not surprised. Make no mistake – if successful, this lawsuit will make people, including our children, less safe and vulnerable to entirely preventable diseases. That is why we will vigorously defend legislative actions to protect public health,” Attorney General William Tong said Thursday.

In 2019, Tong wrote an opinion that said he doesn’t think repealing the religious exemption violates the state constitution.

“There is no serious or reasonable challenge to the state’s broad power to require and regulate childhood vaccinations: the law makes it clear that the state of Connecticut can create, eliminate, or suspend the exemption 10-204a(a) religious order in accordance with its entrenched authority to protect public health and safety,” Tong wrote at the time.

“Despite a diligent search, we were unable to find a case in Connecticut that held that a religious exemption from school vaccinations was constitutionally required,” Tong wrote. “On the contrary, more than 100 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld mandatory school vaccinations. Bissell v. Davison, 65 Conn. 183 (1894). More recently, a superior court case upheld the constitutional dimensions of vaccination in the context of a child custody case.

In the custody case, Tong said the court noted that “religious freedom in this country is not an absolute right” and that “the right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their personal beliefs and nuns must yield when the health of the child is in danger or when there is a recognized threat to public safety.

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