Connecticut law ending religious vaccine exemptions for children is upheld

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A divided federal appeals court on Friday rejected a challenge to a Connecticut law that ended the state’s decades-old religious exemptions from immunization requirements for children in schools, colleges and day care.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said ending religious exemptions, while still allowing medical exemptions, was a rational means to promote health and safety by reducing the potential spread of vaccine-preventable diseases.

In a 2-1 decision, Circuit Judge Denny Chin said the April 2021 law contained “no trace” of hostility toward religious believers, and did not violate objectors’ constitutional rights to due process and the free exercise of religion.

He said many U.S. courts have reviewed vaccination mandates for children that lack religious exemptions, and only one, in Mississippi, has ever found constitutional problems.

“We decline to disturb this nearly unanimous consensus,” Chin, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, wrote.

Five other U.S. states–California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia–also lack religious exemptions.

Connecticut’s law, signed by Governor Ned Lamont, does not apply to children from kindergarten to 12th grade who previously had received religious exemptions.

The law had been challenged by the groups We the Patriots USA and the CT Freedom Alliance, and by three Connecticut parents.

Circuit Judge Joseph Bianco, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, dissented.

He said the majority was too quick to dismiss the free exercise claims, and that its approach could imperil challenges to other vaccine mandates, including against COVID-19, “once the government invoked generalized concerns about public safety.”

Norm Pattis, a lawyer for the objectors, said they may ask the three-judge panel, the full 13-judge appeals court or the Supreme Court to review the case.

“The dissent got it right–it is irrational to permit students to claim a medical exemption but to deny other students the right to claim a religious exemption,” he said.

We The Patriots USA co-founder Brian Festa said Connecticut’s position reflected a “fundamental misunderstanding” of First Amendment rights.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong called the decision, which upheld a lower court ruling, “a full and resounding affirmation of the constitutionality and legality of Connecticut’s vaccine requirements. Vaccines save lives.”

Lamont, in a separate statement, said: “I applaud the courts for upholding decades of medical research and understanding how important it is to stop the spread of preventable diseases.”

The law did not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, and not all children were eligible at the time for vaccines.

The case is We the Patriots USA Inc et al v Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-249.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio, Leslie Adler and Deepa Babington)