Authored by Tom Ozimek via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
In a split decision, a federal appeals court on Friday upheld a controversial pandemic-era law in Connecticut that ended decades-old religious exemptions for vaccination requirements for children.
In a 2-1 decision (pdf), the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected a legal challenge to Connecticut's Public Act 21-6 (pdf), a hotly contested law adopted in 2021 that repealed non-medical exemptions from immunization requirements for children in schools, colleges, and daycare facilities.
In 2021, U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton dismissed a constitutional challenge to Public Act 21-6 brought by religious rights advocates, including We the Patriots USA Inc., the lead plaintiff.
The groups appealed Judge Arterton's ruling, culminating in the Manhattan appeals court's Aug. 4 decision.
The key argument put forward by We the Patriots USA Inc. was that a ban on religious vaccine exemptions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Passage of Public Act 21-6 in April 2021 drew protests at the Connecticut state Capitol, with several thousand demonstrators attending, some holding or chanting slogans like "Defend religious liberty" and "Coercion is not consent."
The appeals court's majority opinion focused on the argument that ending religious exemptions for vaccines was a reasonable way to protect public health and safety, citing as justification a decline in the proportion of schoolchildren immunized against contagious diseases in Connecticut, especially measles.
Judges in the majority said that it was exceedingly rare for a court to object to a state's school vaccination requirement and they didn't want to "disturb this nearly unanimous consensus."
“Only one court—state or federal, trial or appellate—has ever found plausible a claim of a constitutional defect in a state’s school vaccination mandate on account of the absence or repeal of a religious exemption,” wrote Judge Denny Chin on behalf of the majority.
The reference to "only one court" relates to a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden, who ruled that Mississippi must provide religious exemptions to the state's childhood vaccine requirement after a lawsuit alleged that health authorities violated the First Amendment.
The lone dissenting voice in the Connecticut case came from Judge Joseph F. Bianco, who criticized Judge Arterton for dismissing the case too quickly and not giving the plaintiffs enough time to fully explain how it goes against the constitutional right to religious freedom.
Judge Bianco also wrote in the opinion that the defendants failed to establish how Connecticut is different from the vast majority of other states that have a religious vaccine exemption with no apparent impairment to the safety of their residents.
“Although Connecticut asserts that this differing treatment between religious and secular exemptions was prompted by a substantial increase over recent years in the number of religious exemptions and an acute risk of an outbreak of disease, Connecticut fails to explain how forty-four states and the District of Columbia have maintained a religious exemption for mandatory student vaccinations without jeopardizing public health and safety,” Judge Bianco wrote.
Judge Bianco also questioned Connecticut's argument that abolishing the religious exemption threatens public health by pointing out that Public Act 21-6 contains a legacy provision that lets students with current religious exemptions remain unvaccinated until they graduate high school.
"Connecticut also fails to articulate how having the "grandfather clause" in the Act that allows students with current religious exemptions to remain unvaccinated until they graduate high school (which could be over a decade if they were in kindergarten at the time of the passage of the Act) is consistent with its position that the elimination of the religious exemption was necessary to prevent an acute risk of an outbreak of disease among students," the judge wrote.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong issued a statement praising the appeals court's decision, focusing on the court's key argument that ending the religious exemption promotes public health.
“This decision is a full and resounding affirmation of the constitutionality and legality of Connecticut’s vaccine requirements,” Mr. Tong said. “Vaccines save lives — this is a fact beyond dispute."
"The legislature acted responsibly and well within its authority to protect the health of Connecticut families and stop the spread of preventable disease," he continued. "We will continue to vigorously defend our state’s strong and necessary public health laws.”
The lead plaintiffs, who argued that Connecticut violated their constitutional rights, reacted critically.
"We respectfully disagree with the Court's conclusion that the removal of the religious exemption in Connecticut does not infringe upon the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, or the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law," Brian Festa, co-founder and vice president of We the Patriots USA Inc., said in a statement.
Norm Pattis, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, praised the dissenting judge and vowed to press for a full 13-judge appeals court review of the case.
"We think the dissent got it right," he said in a statement. "The case raises grave first amendment issues about the role of religion in American life."
"We will ask the Second Circuit for re-argument and an en banc hearing," he added.