Religious Law

2nd Circuit rejects free exercise challenge to law ending religious exemptions for immunization mandate

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The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York has upheld dismissal of four out of five counts in a challenge to a Connecticut law ending a religious exemption for required vaccinations. Image from Shutterstock.

A Connecticut law ending a religious exemption for required vaccinations does not violate constitutional guarantees, including the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, a federal appeals court has held.

In an Aug. 4 opinion, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York upheld dismissal of four out of five counts in a challenge to the law.

Reuters, the Connecticut Post, and Courthouse News Service covered the 2-1 decision.

The law repealed religious exemptions to Connecticut vaccine requirements for schoolchildren, college and university students, and child care participants. The law kept intact religious exemptions that had already been granted, however, and kept intact an exemption when immunization is medically risky.

The plaintiffs had alleged that the religious-exemption repeal showed hostility to religious believers in violation of the free exercise clause, impermissibly treated religious and nonreligious reasons for declining vaccinations differently, jeopardized implied rights to medical freedom and privacy, violated an implicit due process right to childrearing, and infringed disabled students’ statutory right to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

The 2nd Circuit rejected the constitutional claims but allowed the IDEA claim to proceed for a look at the merits in the district court.

Connecticut was one of five states to have ended religious exemptions when the law was enacted in 2021; the others are Mississippi, California, New York and Maine. A sixth state, West Virginia, never had a religious exemption.

A federal judge in April required Mississippi to develop a process for claiming a religious exemption. Other courts have not found constitutional issues with elimination of exemptions.

“We decline to disturb this nearly unanimous consensus,” the 2nd Circuit said in a decision by Judge Denny Chin, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

A dissenter said the law’s challengers had stated a plausible free exercise claim.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, We the Patriots USA, said in a statement it respectfully disagrees with the appeals court’s decision on the constitutional issues.

“We fully intend to seek review of this decision in the United States Supreme Court, to obtain equal justice for all children—not only in Connecticut but in every state in the nation,” the statement said.

The case is We the Patriots USA v. Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development.

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