Court Upholds Law Ending the Religious Exemption to Immunizations for Students in Connecticut Schools

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Connecticut law has required public and private schools to condition a student’s entry into school upon providing proof of immunizations against certain communicable diseases (including but not limited to diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio).  In addition to a medical exemption, that statute previously provided an exception for where the child presents a statement from a parent or guardian that such immunizations would be contrary to the child’s (or the parent’s or guardian’s) religious beliefs.

As noted in these pages, The End of the Religious Exemption to Immunizations for Students in Connecticut Schools?), the Connecticut General Assembly passed (and Governor Lamont signed on April 28, 2021) Public Act 21-6, entitled “An Act Concerning Immunizations,” which largely eliminated this religious exemption … but in the future.  The new law eliminated the religious exemption but allows any student who was enrolled (at least) in kindergarten and produced a religious exemption form prior to April 28, 2021 to remain exempt. The Act retained the exemption for immunizations medically contraindicated for a child.

Shortly after the passage of Public Act 21-6, various groups (“We the Patriots USA” and the “CT Freedom Alliance”) and individuals opposing the legislation brought litigation, asserting, among other things, that this new law violated numerous federal constitutional provisions, including the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment, along with purported rights to privacy and medical freedom under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the right to child rearing under the Fourteenth Amendment. In asserting their claims, the parties bringing the lawsuit alleged that 1) some of the vaccines contain cell lines derived from aborted fetal cells, 2) vaccinations are harmful because the “presence of very small amounts of human fetal cells and DNA in the human blood can create a very strong autoimmune reaction in a person by which his [sic] body turns against itself and starts killing its own cells and tissues,” and 3) certain vaccines include animal cells and pork derivatives.

In a ruling issued on January 11, 2022 and just published, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Arterton dismissed the case. Some of the reasons for dismissal were based upon technical legal arguments (e.g., that the state defendants that were sued were entitled to Eleventh Amendment/Sovereign Immunity, and that the associations bringing the lawsuits did not have standing to sue). The Court also reached the merits of the issue and dismissed the suit due to a failure to state a viable claim.  As predicted in our prior blog post, the Court ruled that mandatory vaccination as a condition to school enrollment did not violate the Free Exercise Clause (or right to child rearing), in light of prior U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate precedent.  As both we and Judge Arterton noted, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the power to enforce compulsory vaccination requirements; subsequently, in Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922), the Court ruled that school districts could exclude unvaccinated students from their schools. The Court noted on its own that in addition to this prior precedent (including courts in other jurisdictions that have previously rejected religious based challenges to student vaccination requirements), the Court felt that the new law was constitutional because it was a “neutral law of general applicability” that was rationally related to a legitimate state purpose, thus allowing it to pass muster under both the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause. In so upholding the “rationality” of the new law, the Court specifically rejected claims that the law discriminated against students resulting from 1) the grandfathering of the religious exemption for current students, and 2) the maintenance of the medical exemption.  The Court rejected claims that the law violated the students’ and parents’  “right to privacy and medical freedom,” finding that there is no overriding privacy right to decline vaccination.

What is next? The plaintiffs have promised to appeal this ruling all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal Judge Tosses Religious Exemption Lawsuit, Appeal Promised | CT News Junkie. Stay tuned.

Does This Case Have Anything to Do With COVID-19?  Yes and no. The Connecticut statute at issue does not specifically mandate a COVID-19 vaccination, and it appears that our legislature will not be imposing any sort of COVID-19 vaccine mandate upon the schools.  However, under the reasoning of this case, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s prior precedent cited therein, a school on its own could theoretically decide to impose a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all of its students (without a religious exemption), although the Americans with Disabilities Act arguably could require some accommodations for students with medical contraindications to the COVID-19 vaccine.         

Will This Ruling be Affected by the Two (January 13, 2022) U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on the OSHA Mandated Vaccine Requirements for Large Private Employers and Health Care Providers? The short answer is probably not.  The Supreme Court rulings did not address the merits per se of a vaccine mandate, but rather addressed who had the power to impose such a mandate (the Legislature vs. the Executive branch via regulation).  In the case of the new Connecticut law, it was passed via the usual legislative process, and there can be no viable claim that a legislature does not have the power to enact (in the absence of a veto) such legislation.

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