HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A contingent of Republican state lawmakers says it’s “wholly inappropriate” for Connecticut’s Department of Public Health commissioner to weigh in on the contentious issue of whether the state should end its religious exemption for childhood vaccinations.
The five state representatives recently sent a letter to Renee D. Coleman Mitchell, urging her not to respond to a request from Democratic legislative leaders to provide additional information and policy recommendations about vaccinations for schoolchildren, including whether to eliminate the exemption. The four top lawmakers hope to receive the guidance before the 2020 legislative session begins in February.
“We believe that it is wholly inappropriate for the legislators to be seeking your opinion regarding the elimination of the religious exemption in Connecticut,” the lawmakers wrote, in a letter dated July 30. “It’s not the charge of your agency to offer opinions on civil rights issues; the state has other agencies that are responsible for those matters. Constitutional quandaries must be left the courts.”
The lawmakers said they “implore” the commissioner not to offer an opinion. They argue that eliminating the exemption would violate religious freedom.
Av Harris, a spokesman for the public health deparment, declined to comment on the Republicans’ letter.
Connecticut had a religious exemption on the books since at least 1959. Earlier this year, Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter and two other Democrats raised the possibility of eliminating it after DPH released data that showed more than 100 schools had vaccination rates that fall below recommended federal guidelines.
Given the uptick in measles cases in the U.S., the lawmakers said they’re concerned some parents are using the religious exemption as an excuse because they have concerns about vaccine safety.
Ultimately, the General Assembly did not vote this year on ending the exemption. Instead, Ritter said there were some outstanding issues that need to be addressed, such as how to handle unvaccinated students currently enrolled in school. Lawmakers decided to then seek advice from state public health officials, submitting a list of questions in June.
Besides how to handle unvaccinated children, the legislators asked whether the public health department needs more authority to increase the state’s vaccination rates; how to protect students who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons; and whether the religious exemption should be eliminated.
Democratic Attorney General William Tong in May issued a non-binding ruling that said there’s nothing in state law to prevent lawmakers from scrapping the exemption. The Republicans contend there’s no need for legislation to increase vaccination rates.