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    Connecticut lawmakers argue to keep religious exemptions for vaccinations

    A sign warned people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg in New York City.
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images
    A sign warned people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg in New York City.

    A group of state lawmakers is fighting back against discussions to possibly eliminate a religious exemption to the requirement that Connecticut schoolchildren be vaccinated, arguing it would be unconstitutional.

    The 44 senators and representatives, mostly Republicans, have sent a letter to Democratic Attorney General William Tong expressing their belief that ending the exemption would prevent parents from freely exercising their right to religion and violate their rights by essentially preventing their unvaccinated children from being allowed to attend public school.

    “We hope you will join us in our firm conviction that Connecticut should never be a state that favors certain religious beliefs to the exclusion of others. Such action is, in fact, the very definition of discrimination,” the lawmakers wrote.

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    The letter is in response to Democratic House majority leader Matt Ritter of Hartford, who recently sought an opinion from Tong on the federal and state constitutionality of eliminating the exemption. Ritter said he believes the exemption is being abused and should be scrapped in light of the uptick in measles and other outbreaks across the United States.

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    A spokeswoman for Tong said the letter from the group of lawmakers, which includes members of the General Assembly’s 14-member conservative caucus, will be addressed in his official opinion, likely to be released next month.

    Ritter angered a group of parents when he said last month the General Assembly should vote on whether to eliminate Connecticut’s religious exemption within the next 12 months. Ritter has noted that three states — California, Mississippi, and West Virginia — currently do not have a religious or philosophical exemption for required school immunizations. While he believes excusing Connecticut’s exemption would be permissible under federal law, he asked Tong to review the claim that it would violate Connecticut’s constitution, which includes a provision for free and equitable education.

    If the exemption was eliminated, unvaccinated children would not be admitted to school, with the exception of those with medical exemptions.

    Republican Representative Anne Dauphinais of Killingly, who helped to gather signatures for the group letter, said she believes there’s strong support in the General Assembly for protecting the religious exemption, including from some legislators who didn’t want to add their name for political reasons. She said they believe the religious exemption “is one thing you just don’t mess with.”

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    Dauphinais said there’s also strong support for the exemption from members of the public, especially groups that have raised concerns about vaccine safety.

    “They will certainly be challenged in Connecticut if they try to put that forth,” she said. “There’s a mighty group in this state and there’s many legal attorneys involved as well. It won’t go down easy, I can tell you that, if it becomes an issue.”