In its recent decision, We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Public Act 21-6, the law that repealed Connecticut’s religious exemptions related to mandatory immunizations for school enrollment. The plaintiffs, membership organizations and parents of school-aged children, sued the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development, Connecticut State Department of Education, Connecticut Department of Health, and three local boards of education, claiming that the repeal infringed on their constitutional rights, as well as students’ rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Through the enactment of this law, Connecticut followed the footsteps of four other states—California, New York, Maine and Mississippi—that similarly ended religious exemptions.
By way of background, under Connecticut law, local or regional boards of education and similar bodies governing nonpublic schools, institutions of higher education and childcare programs have pre-enrollment immunization requirements for students, which condition enrollment on the receipt of required immunizations or a valid exemption from the immunization requirements. In the context of elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools, prior to the enactment of Public Act 21-6, a parent or guardian of a student had been able to obtain a religious exemption to the mandatory immunization requirements if the immunization requirements were contrary to the religious beliefs of the parent, guardian or student.
Upon its enactment, Public Act 21-6 repealed the previous religious exemption, but maintained the validity of existing valid religious exemptions for students who were enrolled in kindergarten through grade twelve, inclusive, as of April 28, 2021. Other provisions of the Act concern students enrolled in public and private institutions of higher education and children who attend childcare centers and group childcare homes. Broadly speaking, the law maintained religious exemptions already in place for students in institutions of higher education, however it eliminated the availability of such religious exemptions to students in preschool and prekindergarten programs. Public Act 21-6 also retained the prior law’s exemptions for medical contraindications, provided the documentation of such exemption met new requirements.
In the We the Patriots USA case, the Second Circuit dismissed four of the five claims brought by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ primary claim was that Public Act 21-6’s removal of religious exemptions violated their right under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by demonstrating hostility to religious believers and impermissibly treating religious and nonreligious reasons for declining immunizations differently. Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed that Public Act 21-6, violated their right to privacy and medical freedom, infringed on their rights to equal protection, violated their right to childrearing and denied a child special education services the child was entitled to under the IDEA.
Ultimately, the Second Circuit rejected the Plaintiffs’ Free Exercise claims because Public Act 21-6 was a neutral law of general applicability and therefore was constitutional because it was rationally related to a legitimate interest in protecting the public health of the community. The Court also rejected the other constitutional claims on similar grounds, noting that the plaintiffs did not have fundamental rights that were infringed by the law. Finally, the Court remanded the plaintiff’s IDEA claim back to the District Court because it found that the District Court was too strict in dismissing that claim based purely on the plaintiff using imprecise terminology about the student’s special needs in the complaint. As a result, the District court will need to further consider that claim.
As a result of this decision, Public Act 21-6’s repeal of the religion exemption to mandatory immunizations for school enrollment has been upheld and remains in effect. We will continue to monitor this case as it is remanded to the District Court for further consideration of the special education issue and through any future appeals. If you have questions about Public Act 21-6, please do not hesitate to contact members of our School Law Practice Group.