Federal appeals court upholds Connecticut’s removal of religious exemption from vaccination requirement for schoolchildren

by | Aug 15, 2023

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to a recent Connecticut law removing religious exemptions from the state’s vaccination mandate for schoolchildren. The law was passed amid a significant increase in students who are unvaccinated due to religious exemptions, making Connecticut the 5th state to remove religious exemptions (a 6th state, West Virginia, has never offered a religious exemption from its vaccination requirement, according to the court).

Here, plaintiffs argued that the removal of the exemption reflected animus toward religion by state lawmakers and thus called for heightened (strict) judicial scrutiny. By a 2-1 vote, the appeals panel disagreed. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

At bottom, plaintiffs’ argument that the Act is not neutral [toward religion] boils down to the proposition that repealing any existing religious exemption is hostile to religion per se. … Here, the legislative record simply reveals no evidence of any such animus.

As the majority explained, while the First Amendment allows states to offer a religious exemption, it does not always require one:

[T]he Supreme Court has long described religious exemptions as part of a mutually beneficial “play in the joints” between the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. As with many of the other exemptions that benefit individuals and communities of faith — not requiring religious organizations to pay income and property tax, for instance — the government may constitutionally elect to accommodate religious believers but is not constitutionally required to do so. Plaintiffs’ argument, which would make every exemption permanent once granted, threatens to distort the relationship between the Clauses.

Plaintiffs also argued that a religious exemption is necessary because the state’s mandate allows for medical exemptions for those few who face potential health risks from a vaccine. But the court emphasized the state’s purpose in requiring children to receive certain vaccinations to attend school: the health of the entire community, which is supported by medical exemptions. From the ruling:

Allowing students for whom vaccination is medically contraindicated to avoid vaccination while requiring students with religious objections to be vaccinated does, in both instances, advance the State’s interest in promoting health and safety. To the contrary, exempting a student from the vaccination requirement because of a medical condition and exempting a student who declines to be vaccinated for religious reasons are not comparable in relation to the State’s interest.

When circumstances change with regard to the health risks of a community, it makes sense for a state to re-examine the breadth and scope of its exemptions from requirements designed to protect public health. Quoting Justice Neil Gorsuch when he was as an appeals court judge for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2014 case, the majority added: “Surely the granting of a religious accommodation to some in the past doesn’t bind the government to provide that accommodation to all in the future, especially if experience teaches the accommodation brings with it genuine safety problems that can’t be addressed at a reasonable price.”

Here, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the majority of the plaintiffs’ claims. It did, however, reinstate a claim brought under the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA), explaining that the trial court dismissed it under a too-narrow reading of the complaint. You can read the court’s opinion, including the dissent, here.