Connecticut lawmakers plan to hold a 24-hour, virtual public hearing on a contentious proposal to eliminate the state’s religious exemption from vaccinations for schoolchildren.
The hearing comes about a year after hundreds turned out for a marathon in-person public hearing to weigh in on a similar proposal that didn’t advance because the pandemic ended the legislative session early. That hearing at the state Capitol lasted more than 22 hours.
The General Assembly’s Public Health Committee on Friday voted to allow two similar bills to be the subject of a Feb. 16 hearing, which will be held on Zoom.
While the possibility of eliminating the religious exemption remains controversial, the decision to limit virtual testimony to 24 hours is also generating debate.
Some Republican committee members said it places undo limits on members of the public, especially during a pandemic when they cannot testify before legislators in person because of COVID-19 safety restrictions.
“I think it’s important that we do not limit our testimony to 24 hours because we will be shutting out people that won’t be able to testify. And we would never have considered this if we were in-person,” said Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour.
“I’ve had dozens and dozens of individuals contact me, and they’re very, very upset,” said Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, who supports keeping the exemption in place.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the committee co-chairman, said lawmakers strongly believe that all residents should have the opportunity to testify in some way, noting that people can also submit written testimony on the bills. He said the 24-hour limit on virtual testimony was made for practical reasons.
“We were advised that an indefinite period that could last days and days might be impractical,” he said. “We’ve imposed a time limit, which is longer than any other committee has ever imposed a time limit, and I should note, longer than even last year’s hearing.”
Steinberg said the legislation under consideration this year is very similar to last year’s proposal, which eliminated the ability for individuals attending public and private schools, including higher education institutions, child care centers and day cares, to opt out of vaccination if they present a statement that immunization would violate their religious beliefs or those of a minor’s parents or guardians.
However, Steinberg noted that committee leadership decided to change a portion of last year’s bill that grandfathered existing students with religious exemptions. This year’s version would only allow those students with existing religious exemptions in 7th grade and older to keep their exemptions.
Proponents of the legislation say the religious exemption needs to be stripped because too many people with concerns about vaccines are using it, and state figures show the percentage of vaccinated students in Connecticut schools has fallen in the past several years. Opponents, including some who’ve questioned the state’s data, argue such a move is an infringement on their religious rights as well as their rights as parents.
Lawmakers supportive of the legislation also plan to include language that would expand the state’s existing vaccination exemption for medical reasons, allowing physicians to make adjustments to a child’s vaccination schedule if they believe it’s medically necessary.