The Coronavirus vaccine rollout is fueling a debate that has been brewing in the state of Connecticut for a year now. Parents there are fearfully arguing that a recent set of bills could expand to mean that a lack of compliance with Covid vaccination could add to the reasons that their children would be denied access to in-person education in Connecticut.

Parents in Connecticut have been waging a battle with the state legislature because they want the freedom to choose what vaccines their children receive. That includes keeping a 60-year-old religious exemption in place. Five thousand citizens showed up at the Connecticut Legislative Office Building in Hartford to protest the two bills, HB6423 and SB568, in February of 2020. They hoped to persuade the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee members to retain the religious (non-medical) exemption for certain childhood vaccines. The legislation made it through committee in 2020 and was ready for the floor, but the rest of the legislative session was canceled due to the pandemic.

According to Connecticut Democrat House Representative Jonathan Steinberg, who represents Westport and is the Chair of the Public Health Committee, the bills have nothing to do with the Covid vaccine. The two bills debated in the 24-hour Zoom hearing on Feb. 16, he says, are to eliminate the non-medical exemption for mandated childhood vaccines and protect the people of Connecticut. Close to 1400 people were prepared to testify during the hearing, many very angry that the legislators would not allow an in-person hearing.

Somewhat frustrated, Steinberg told the Lisa Wexler Show host on Feb. 18 that the hearing could have easily gone on for days, but that would have been a “perversion of the process, making it less about testimony and more about the spectacle of keeping it going indefinitely.” He explained that the “very vocal and intimidating minority of people” who showed at the Capitol in Connecticut last year to protest the elimination of the religious exemption for vaccines has only grown in strength and anger, adding that they are “trying to dictate policy in the state of Connecticut.”

Steinberg says many on both sides are angry. He says his only goal is to protect the well-being of the people of Connecticut. Due to a lack of vaccine compliance, he is very worried that vaccinated children in the state will fall below the numbers necessary for herd immunity for diseases like measles. One doctor, whose letter was posted on Twitter by Senator Duff (D-CT), weighed in on the importance of vaccines for children.

Steinberg explained that the legislature is actually trying to solidify medical exemptions for children who really need them. Repeated complaints from constituents indicate that it is nearly impossible to receive a medical exemption from vaccines. This may be due, in part, to the reluctance or lack of education on medical exemptions by the doctors who might provide it. He says that insurance companies need to allow doctors more face-time with patients to discuss the risks and benefits of vaccines. The bills also propose attenuated vaccination schedules for families who are not comfortable with the current schedule of vaccines. Steinberg feels that families should be able to explore with their doctors an appropriate path forward for each child concerning vaccines.

The problem, Steinberg maintains, is that Connecticut has seen an increased use of the religious exemption as an excuse not to comply with mandated vaccines. He says that long-standing mandated vaccines like the MMR are well-tested and have proven track records in maintaining public health. He thinks that a lot of the information out there on vaccines is “pure fear-mongering myth-making and it’s really scary because it undermines confidence in medical authorities and science and has really made it much more difficult for us even convincing people to take the Covid vaccine because they don’t believe any more in the authorities. This is a problem for our society.” The Covid vaccine is not mentioned in the bills.

Kate Pro, admin for the Facebook group called Connecticut Residents Against Covid-19 Vaccine Mandates, argues that data taken from the Connecticut Immunizations Portal survey shows that use of the religious exemption has gone down, not up. Pro maintains that the bigger issue regarding vaccination rates is the 60 percent of children in the state who have been allowed to attend school due either to lack of compliance or failure to report their vaccination history. If vaccination rates are truly the reason for the legislation, then many wonder why the legislature wants to focus on the much smaller 2.3 percent who are requesting a religious exemption.

Graph/Kindergarten Exemptions/Connecticut

Pro is also disappointed in Steinberg because she says she “handed him the data that would increase his vaccination rates,” and he continues to ignore it.

FB Post/Kate Pro/Steinberg Interview

Adding fuel to the fire is Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a proponent for the Senate bill, who tweeted that the “anti-vax movement is the off-spring of the QANON movement.”

Many parents took issue with his comments, as evidenced by a message posted on FB by a parent in the community.

Screenshot/FB Group/CT

Dawn Jolly, the Connecticut Freedom Alliance founder, represents about 1500 citizens behind the movement to reject the bills. Many of them, including Katherine Kraemer, offered compelling testimony on Tuesday during the hearing. Kraemer presented data that indicated the religious exemptions are not being abused as a reason to avoid vaccines. In fact, the rate of use of the non-medical exemption has decreased.

Jolly says that it is incorrect to imply that the citizen protesters are all “anti-vaxxers.” Our group, she says, represents a wide array of concerns, from religious reasons to families whose children have experienced adverse reactions to vaccines—as well as families who fully vaccinate their children but who are “not okay with the tyrannical government overreach that these bills are proposing.”

According to co-founder Brian Festa, the Connecticut Freedom Alliance aims to support “freedoms and individual rights, parental rights…We are not here to tell anyone they shouldn’t get vaccinated, they should get vaccinated. It’s about giving parents choice, which is their Constitutional right.”

The Connecticut Freedom Alliance has also been in litigation with schools over the mask mandate. The ongoing lawsuit, filed in August, has been met with resistance from the courts. The lawsuit was originally aimed at the Education Department and its commissioner, Miguel Cardona, the Biden administration’s pick for Education Secretary. Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled in November that “masks do not—as the plaintiffs had claimed—represent an imminent threat to school children.”

In December, the parents involved in the lawsuit shifted their strategy. They have moved from “challenging the virtues of the mask mandate…to disputing the state’s authority to impose it.” The lawsuit now maintains that a “state law giving Governor Lamont emergency authority during the pandemic is unconstitutional.”

The latest development in the mask case came on Feb. 11 when Judge Moukawsher began to consider the “separation of powers question” central to the case. Lamont has extended his emergency authority until April 20 without interference from the legislature. The emergency declarations had previously been scheduled to expire this week.

“If there’s any extension, it’s only with the permission of the legislature. If there are any executive orders the legislature don’t like—cast a vote on it,” said Lamont. “If the General Assembly was simply content to let it go on and on and not challenge the governor’s declaration … and simply let him keep renewing it in six months perpetually, that would violate the Constitution, would it not?” the judge asked.

According to the CT Freedom Alliance website, the Public Health Committee will be bringing one or both of the vaccine bills to a vote as early as next Wednesday, February 24, 2021. They are also co-sponsoring a rally for religious and health freedom on Sunday, March 7, 2021, from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. at the Capitol Building in Hartford.