Fiorella Beccaglia Managing Editor
House Bill 5044, introduced by the Public Health Committee at the Connecticut General Assembly (CGA), seeks to tighten immunization laws in public schools by eliminating all religious vaccine exemptions.
Before legislators passed the bill on a controversial 14-11 vote Feb. 23, three amendments were added. The most important amendment included grandfathering the 7,800 children who already have a religious exemption. This means if the bill becomes law, children that have not been vaccinated will not be required to do so. Only the children moving forward will be required to be protected by adequate immunization. No Republicans favored the bill while two Democrats opposed, suggesting it is a highly partisan matter.
HB5044 is extremely important for Connecticut residents to be paying attention to as the individual liberties in question are fundamental. Many claim the removal of religious exemptions is a constitutional rights violation regarding the First Amendment’s free exercise guarantee. In my opinion, better arguments than this may be formulated against this bill.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutionality of the issues raised in HB5044 in two major cases: Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) and Prince vs. Massachusetts (1944). In Prince, the Court held that states may require vaccination regardless of a parent’s religious objection, stating that, “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” These cases are important because federal interpretations favoring the common welfare over the freedom of the individual are precedent at the moment. In Prince and Jacobson, the Court made it clear that religious exemptions offered by states are elective, rather than mandated by the First Amendment’s right to free exercise of religion.
A better argument against HB5044 would be the questions concerning government overreach, and for the cautious use of the government’s police power. It is dangerous to have a government able to forcibly inject a substance into a child, regardless if it is beneficial for them or not. This is a more libertarian argument against HB5044 that attacks principle rather than result. Many people who are not anti-vaxxers agree with this view. They may believe that the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the risks, but still favor giving up on liberty for a sense of security. This is why I do not think HB5044 is as simple as it seems. It is a question about what one values more: individual freedoms or the wellbeing of the community.
While I agree with the dangers of an overly powerful government, I still side with the Supreme Court’s interpretation in Jacobson and Prince. There are no major religions against vaccination, therefore there is no need for this exemption as it is being misused. According to Connecticut Department of Public Health, the number of religious exemptions in Connecticut has increased by 450% since 2003. Many parents use personal beliefs, often times based on misinformation, for these religious exemptions.
In order to prevent outbreaks of vaccine preventable illnesses, we need to reach herd immunity thresholds. Connecticut has 134 schools that have a less than 95% immunization rate for kindergartners. Outbreaks generally happen in areas where there are low herd immunity rates. In 2019, New York saw outbreaks of measles due to low herd immunity rates. The elimination of religious exemptions will help meet these rates state wide.
The basic principle of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, simplified into the notion that you can wave your hand in the air so long as you do not hurt anyone. It is the reason libertarians frequently favor legalizing most individual freedoms, such as drug legalization, and activities between consenting adults, such as prostitution. However, libertarianism absolutely does not condone involuntary association, which is exactly what sending your unvaccinated child out in public constitutes.
Ultimately, not vaccinating your child could cause serious damages to others. Therefore, the freedom of the individual must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare and is subject to the police power of the state.