My colleagues at Pattis & Smith, LLC and I have the honor of representing parents challenging Connecticut’s repeal of the religious exemption to school vaccination requirements. We have repeatedly warned that it violates the First Amendment and the Connecticut constitution as well as every principle that gave birth to the settlement of the United States. The crisis that looms from the same issue, however, still escalates. Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families will likely use its power to bring educational neglect charges against parents who hold to their faith.
Here’s a bit of summary context. Last year, Connecticut repealed its religious exemption to its school vaccination requirements. In doing so, it adopted the broadest vaccination requirement for school attendance in the United States. Children who attend public and private daycares, pre-schools, daycares, K-12 schools, and colleges will be required to receive vaccinations required by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. This deprives parents of the ability to send their kids to private or religious schools to escape the vaccination requirements and protect their religious convictions.
My colleagues and I have properly characterized this regime in repeated court filings as imposing an unconscionable choice for parents: their faith or their children’s future. The consequences, however, go far beyond a simple choice.
Connecticut law (Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 10-184) requires parents to educate their children from the age of 5 through the age of 18. Failure to do so results in a $25 per day fine or over $9500 per year. Enforcement usually falls to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) although it looks like criminal prosecutions to enforce the fine would be authorized by Connecticut law. The Connecticut DCF generally proceeds by filing petitions of neglect in Connecticut state court, and, once there, it only has to demonstrate neglect by “a fair preponderance of the evidence” or, in other words, as being “more likely than not.”
How an educational neglect case will play out is easy to imagine. A school district superintendent will make a report to either a bureaucrat in the Connecticut Department of Education or the DCF itself that a family is not educating their child. The DCF will file a neglect petition in Connecticut Superior Court alleging educational neglect. The parents will respond by claiming their constitutional right to control the upbringing of their children, including in matters of faith. A Connecticut Superior Court judge – sitting in the family court docket – will dismiss their constitutional claims and order them to begin to educate their children. The parents will protest that they have no options except homeschooling, which they cannot afford and do not have the training to properly conduct. The judge will remain firm in the order. The parents will decline to comply, and the judge will hold them in contempt of court. DCF will likely then seek to terminate the parents’ custody if contempt sanctions do not effect the desired compliance.
No one can persuade me that Connecticut legislators weren’t aware of that the repeal of the religious exemption would accomplish more than simply imposing an onerous choice on devout Connecticut parents. It is my firm belief that they understood DCF’s enforcement authority and that they have made a calculated gamble that, when DCF comes for parents’ children, it will play out quietly in Connecticut family courts, which have drawn consistent and loud allegations of being rotten to the core. No one will see the outrages perpetuated there, and no one will care.
Hysteria is a horrible way to govern. Both the federal and state constitutions safeguard the rights of the minority from a paranoid majority. Whether the courts care to extend the minority’s rights the protection that they are entitled to is an open question. My colleagues and I will seek to have that question answered at the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to.