Op-Ed: Repeal of Religious Exemption is an Affront [Waterbury Rep-Am]

May 3, 2021
Op-ed as it appeared in the Waterbury Republican-American.
By Sen. Eric Berthel


This week, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont quietly signed one of the most dangerous measures I have seen in my seven years as a legislator. This law removes the long-standing religious exemption for child vaccinations for school enrollment.


When we gaveled-in this legislative session in the 10th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus seemed to be on how we would come together to plan the recovery of our state. This recovery included dealing with the void caused by abrupt changes to the delivery of public education.


A number of measures now before the legislature run counter to any form of COVID-19 recovery. The new law is an example of this. It is an affront to any child and family that claims religious exemption. These parents and children have endured 14 months of highly irregular learning and isolation from their peers. As Senate ranking member of the Education Committee, I take this very seriously.


While the new law grandfathers in those currently in school, it jeopardizes the future for children yet to enter our classrooms, who will be shut out from their constitutional right to an education with their peers. Moreover, I have yet to hear an explanation of why this bill is a priority at this time. Is there an outbreak somewhere? What is the reason behind a religious exemption being treated as a threat to public health?


The data do not lend clarity to these questions. Connecticut ranks fifth-best in the United States in public-school vaccination compliance. A meager 1.45% of the 574,000 students in public schools in the state claim religious exemption. Do these data justify this law and the subsequent loss of religious freedom?


I was fully vaccinated as a child; my children are fully vaccinated. These were the decisions of my family. This law effectively strips away parental rights and hands them over to the government. What’s more, this law not only applies to public schools, but private entities. In so doing, we’ve undermined the integrity of our pillars of freedom. This is not our place as legislators.


The denial of rights caused by this law will be a permanent stain on the legislature and on our executive branch. It also will cause the people that elected us to question what else we are doing to diminish their rights.


I have received more than 1,000 letters from my constituents asking me to vote no on this measure. The reality is that this bill and its consequences reach well beyond parents seeking to maintain religious rights and freedom. We are a state and nation built on many freedoms, with a separation of church and state. We strive to practice tolerance and seek understanding of all faiths.


If this bill were as critical as we have been told, it should have come before the Education and Human Services committees, to be examined and critiqued by subject-matter experts. This bill was haphazardly pushed forward.


This law may be overturned, as we have seen mounting legal challenges from groups across the state. These challenges are not going away. The state will spend taxpayer dollars to defend itself for its action of stripping you of your rights. This is fundamentally wrong.


We have begun to address matters of equity in every component of our society. This law will deny access to education for an entire group of children not yet in our public schools. It goes against the principles on which this nation was founded.