Connecticut Looks at the Intersection of Religious Freedom and Public Health

September 5, 2019

Over the past several decades there’s been growing controversy around the efficacy of vaccines and whether they show any tangible link to other disorders, such as autism.  Most modern medical professionals have concluded that there is no credible evidence that shows a link between vaccinations and other major medical conditions.  In fact, most say that the benefits far outweigh the risk.  Still, some parents choose not to vaccinate their children, many citing their religious beliefs as the reason regardless of public policy.

This poses an ongoing political issue for our elected leaders.  More and more legislative bodies find themselves grappling with how best they can protect the public’s health while being sensitive to religious freedoms.  Lawmakers in Connecticut are conflicted.   Caught at the center of a debate that divides religious advocates, concerned parents, health officials, and the public at large—the legislature is expected to take up this measure when they reconvene in February.

Following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Christine Stuart of the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) released shocking data about the number of students in schools across the state who are and who are not immunized.  Current law allows parents to invoke a religious exemption if they choose not to have their children vaccinated.  The CDC recommends that at least 95% of a student body receive a vaccination to create what’s known as “herd immunity.”  That’s when a, “sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely.  Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.”

With a number of organizations taking a stand and calling on members of the House and Senate to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations, the debate will continue.  Amy Dowell, the Executive Director of prominent education advocacy organization, Connecticut Democrats for Education Reform, is the latest to call for removing the religious exemption.  In a recent CT Mirror article Amy said, “Religious exemptions are certainly an issue that has percolated all over the country.  Everybody has recognized in the science community that this isn’t a way to protect students.  We felt it was appropriate for us to go on the record and say we want the best for our children.  This is not a safe circumstance for Connecticut students.”

One thing’s for sure, this issue isn’t going away.  Its very nature is polarizing and has energized proponents on both sides.  While the measure didn’t gain much traction in the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers have pledged to resurrect it next year.  For now, we’ll have to wait for action from our elected leaders.  In the meantime, it’s imperative that advocates like Amy keep the conversation going in the months and years ahead.


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