Families who oppose Connecticut’s new law eliminating the state’s religious exemption to childhood vaccines will take their fight to court, announcing their plans just hours after the governor signed the bill into law.
The challengers stood on the steps of the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford Wednesday, explaining their plans to file lawsuits in both state and federal courts to overturn a law they say is unconstitutional.
“This lawsuit will strike at the heart of claims that there can ever be a public health emergency such that fundamental rights to raise your children become ... the power of the state,” said attorney Norm Pattis.
He and his legal team represent the plaintiffs, including Sherry Harmon, a Connecticut mother of four. Her two oldest sons with religious exemptions will be grandfathered under the law. But her 4-year-old twin daughters won’t be able to attend kindergarten without all required vaccines when the new law takes effect in September 2022.
“It’s not just about me, though,” she said. “It’s not about my particular family, it’s about other families too.”
Pattis said that if necessary, he’s prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stephen Gilles, a law professor at Quinnipiac University, said one argument the plaintiffs likely will make is that eliminating one exemption while keeping another -- the medical exemption -- specifically discriminates against religious practice.
“If the state just said, ‘Nobody gets an exemption, nobody at all,’ that’s neutral. Totally neutral,” Gilles said. “That applies to everybody.”
Opponents of the law also claim that it violates a child’s right to an education under state constitutional law. But UConn Law School Professor Emeritus Richard Kay considers this a weaker argument.
“I think it’s close to a frivolous argument to say that the right to education -- we’re not talking about the religious issue now -- but just the right to education is somehow interfered with by a requirement that students kind of meet minimal health safety regulations,” Kay said.
He said there are a number of ways the new law can and likely will be challenged, but he doubts they will be successful. Connecticut is the sixth state to end all nonmedical exemptions. Forty-four other states retain a religious or philosophical exemption.