On January 11, 2022, the federal District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed a lawsuit brought by two associations and three individuals against three state agencies and three boards of education. The lawsuit alleged that Connecticut Public Act No. 21-6 (“P.A. 21-6”) violates the right to the free exercise of religion, the right to medical freedom and privacy, the right to equal protection, the right to childrearing and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). As explained in our prior post Governor Signs New Law Eliminating Religious Exemptions from Immunization Requirements, P.A. 21-6 eliminated religious exemptions from school vaccine mandates for students without existing religious exemptions, but continues to allow certain medical exemptions.

In its detailed decision to throw out the case, We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development, 2022 WL 105191, — F. Supp.3d — (D. Conn. Jan. 11, 2022), the court dismissed all of the claims for the following reasons:

  • The court quickly disposed of the constitutional claims against the state agencies on the grounds that the agencies are “arms of the state” protected by sovereign immunity.
  • Because the associations failed to explain how their members would be harmed by P.A. 21-6, the court dismissed all of the claims brought by the two associations.
  • In dismissing the free exercise of religion claim, the court first concluded that P.A. 21-6’s vaccination requirement is a neutral, generally applicable requirement for students that does not target religion or religious practices and, as a result, must be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. The court then had no difficulty finding such a rational relationship between the law and the state’s “legitimate interest in protecting the public health of the community.” The court further explained that the decision to permit medical exemptions but not religious exemptions is rational because medical exemptions further children’s health by not requiring that those children be vaccinated if such vaccinations are medically contraindicated.
  • In light of the precedent of the United States Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that P.A. 21-6 violates their constitutional right to medical freedom or privacy.
  • The court concluded that the state’s decision to permit existing religious exemptions for students in kindergarten through grade twelve and medical exemptions does not violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to equal protection. The court explained that it is rational to allow students in kindergarten through grade twelve with existing religious exemptions to continue using them to protect the expectations of parents who relied on the prior version of the law that permitted religious exemptions. As it had in analyzing the free exercise claim, the court also concluded that it is rational to continue to allow medical exemptions to the vaccination requirement to protect students for whom the vaccinations are medically contraindicated.
  • The court swiftly tossed out the claim that P.A. 21-6 violates parents’ constitutionally-protected right to control and direct the upbringing of their child because such claim was dependent on the viability of the freedom of religion claim, which had already been dismissed.
  • Finally, the court dismissed the IDEA claim because the unsupported allegation that the child of one of the individuals “is disabled within the meaning of IDEA” was insufficient to establish that they were entitled to relief under that federal statute.

The individual and associational plaintiffs have promised to appeal the dismissal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. The School Law Practice Group will provide timely updates of future developments on this case. If you have any questions about this court decision, please feel free to contact Julie Jaquays at jjaquays@goodwin.com, Peter Maher at pmaher@goodwin.com or any member of our School Law Practice Group.