September 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Americans United and six religious and interfaith organizations last month urged a federal court in Connecticut to protect schoolchildren from the spread of preventable diseases by upholding a new state law that phases out religious exemptions from school vaccination requirements. 

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Aug. 5 in the case We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development, Americans United and its allies outlined several reasons why the state law should be upheld.

Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed the measure into law earlier this year. Under its terms, religious exemptions from mandatory vaccines will end with the 2022 school year. Children already attending school who had claimed an exemption will still be able to use it, but new religious exemptions won’t be granted.

The law applies to public and private schools, higher education, daycare and child care centers. State legislators took action after an outbreak of childhood diseases that had previously been under control, notably measles.

The U.S. Supreme Court, AU and its allies noted, has repeatedly reaffirmed that religious freedom does not give religious objectors “general immunity from secular laws.” A line of Supreme Court decisions going back to 1905 makes clear that the Constitution does not mandate religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.

The medical exemption in Connecticut’s law for children who cannot safely be vaccinated advances the law’s goal of protecting children’s health, AU asserted. But, AU argued, the existence of a medical exemption does not mean that the state must also grant religious exemptions.

The brief noted that since there were 10 times more requests for religious exemptions than for medical exemptions during the 2019-20 school year in Connecticut, religious exemptions are significantly undermining the state’s mission of protecting schoolchildren from dangerous diseases. The excessive religious exemptions in 2019-20 led to 120 Connecticut schools failing to reach vaccination levels needed for herd immunity against measles.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right that ensures that we are all treated equally under the law and allowed to live and believe as we choose – as long as we don’t harm others,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United. “Religious freedom doesn’t provide immunity from life-threatening diseases or from laws that are meant to protect everyone equally. The court should uphold Connecticut’s school vaccination requirements – which protect the health of all schoolchildren – and dismiss this lawsuit.

“The world has seen firsthand over the past 18 months the critical role that vaccines play in protecting people from deadly diseases,” Luch­enitser added. “Connecticut health officials should be commended for the action they’ve taken to protect children after recognizing that the state had a growing problem of too few schoolchildren being vaccinated to reach herd immunity from preventable, potentially serious illnesses. We hope that more states follow in Connecticut’s footsteps and end harmful religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.”

The organizations joining Americans United on the brief are Central Conference of American Rabbis, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Men of Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.