Dear Legal Mailbag:

I read some reports on Facebook about the controversy over vaccinations of students in school, but I thought it was someone else’s problem — until today. A new family moved into my district and the parents came in to enroll their second grader. My secretary knows the drill, and normally I don’t get involved with enrollments. However, today she needed my help.

The parents were pleasant enough, but they were clear in their position. They had not and would not have their son vaccinated. I told them that they would have to comply with the law, explaining that their options are: have their child vaccinated, present a note from a doctor stating that such vaccination is medically contra-indicated, or assert a religious objection. They asked to confer privately and, after a few minutes, they told me that they would be going the “religious route.” I said fine, but after they left I got concerned that they really didn’t have a religious objection, given their private conversation and their ad hoc claim. Should I have asked for some verification from their minister that their religious claim is bona fide?

Ripped from the Headlines

Dear Ripped:

There is no provision in the law for testing the religious conviction of parents seeking an exemption from the vaccination requirements on religious grounds. As to the religious exemption, Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-204, the applicable law, simply provides that a student will be exempt from the vaccination requirements if he or she:

(3) presents a statement from the parents or guardian of such child that such immunization would be contrary to the religious beliefs of such child or the parents or guardian of such child, which statement shall be acknowledged, in accordance with the provisions of sections 1-32, 1-34 and 1-35, by (A) a judge of a court of record or a family support magistrate, (B) a clerk or deputy clerk of a court having a seal, (C) a town clerk, (D) a notary public, (E) a justice of the peace, (F) an attorney admitted to the bar of this state, or (G) notwithstanding any provision of chapter 6, a school nurse . . . .

As you will note, under current law a parent may invoke the religious exemption by presenting a simple statement (“that such immunization would be contrary to the religious beliefs of such child or the parents or guardian of such child”) that must be acknowledged by any one of various people, including a notary public. Acknowledgment in this situation, however, is simply a verification of the person making the statement, not a finding that the statement is true.

Legal Mailbag notes the current controversy over the possible modification of this provision in the law and offers the following observations. First, legislative review of this exemption is based on a concern that a growing number of parents are asserting a religious objection to vaccination, with the result that a higher number of unvaccinated children are attending the public schools. Second, the vaccination requirement is based on legitimate public health concerns and, in recent years, there have been outbreaks of measles and other diseases that can be prevented through vaccination. Third, in the face of legitimate public health concerns, personal choices may be limited. For example, right now we are seeing mandatory quarantines throughout the world in the face of potential epidemic from the coronavirus. Closer to home, last year New York State eliminated the religious exemption from vaccination requirements, finding that the public health risks posed by unvaccinated children in school outweighed the importance of accommodating the religious objections of parents.

Legal Mailbag also notes that some parents have bona fide religious objections to vaccination and understands that you may ask what are their options if the religious objection to vaccination is limited or eliminated. School officials have a duty to make reasonable accommodation to religious practices of parents and students. Sometimes the accommodation is simply to excuse a student from school on a religious holiday. Another example of accommodation is excusal from physical education classes because of religious obligations prohibiting “immodest dress.”

Sometimes, it is not possible to accommodate the religious practice in question within the public schools, as when parents insist on religious grounds that their children not be exposed to technology or certain curriculum content. In such cases, the accommodation is to permit the parents to make other arrangements for the education of their children. Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-184 is the mandatory attendance statute, and it provides that parents or guardians of school-age children must assure that the child in their care attend the public schools unless the parent or guardian “is able to show that the child is elsewhere receiving equivalent instruction in the studies taught in the public schools . . . .” Thus, if the religious practice may not reasonably be accommodated in the public schools, the parents or guardians can remain true to their religious convictions and send their children to private school or home-school their children, as long as such education can be considered “equivalent instruction.” Such may be the case for some parents or guardians if the religious exemption from vaccination is eliminated or otherwise limited.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.