States seek to cut off religious exemptions for vaccination

An illustration provides a 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle studded with glycoprotein tubercles in this handout image obtained by Reuters April 9, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 07 May 2019

States seek to cut off religious exemptions for vaccination

  • The 440-foot Freewinds ship was previously quarantined in St. Lucia after a crew member was diagnosed with measles

NEW YORK: Connecticut’s Attorney General gave state lawmakers the legal go-ahead Monday to pursue legislation that would prevent parents from exempting their children from vaccinations for religious reasons, a move that several states are considering amid a significant measles outbreak.
The non-binding ruling from William Tong, a Democrat, was released the same day public health officials in neighboring New York called on state legislators there to pass similar legislation . Most of the cases in the current outbreak have been in New York state.
Tong offered no stance on whether the Connecticut General Assembly should scrap the exclusion, but he made it clear in the seven-page letter there is nothing in the law that would prevent the state from ending the exemption.
“There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption,” Tong wrote, adding that it’s within the state’s “well-settled power to protect public safety and health.”
Connecticut is just one of several states considering whether to end longstanding laws that allow people to opt out of vaccinations for religious purposes. In the face of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, some have alleged religious exemptions have been abused by “anti-vaxxers” who believe vaccines are harmful despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
But the proposals to eliminate the opt-outs have also sparked emotional debates about religious freedom and the rights of parents.
Most religions have no prohibitions against vaccinations, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee. Yet the number of people seeking the religious exemption in Connecticut has been consistently climbing. There were 316 issued during the 2003-04 school year, compared to 1,255 in the 2017-18 school year.
Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, of Hartford, who wants the General Assembly to vote on ending the exemption, had requested Tong’s formal opinion — his first since taking office in January.
It’s unclear when or if Connecticut lawmakers might vote on ending the exemption this session, which ends June 5.
“I think there’s a growing consensus that Connecticut is going to need to do something pretty bold in the coming weeks, coming months,” Ritter said last week.
While Connecticut’s statewide immunization rate is high — 96.5% of kindergarten students are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella — concern persists about the growing number of families that have sought the religious exemption in recent years and the likelihood of bogus exemptions.
The state’s Department of Public Health released school-by-school data for the first time on Friday that showed more than 100 out of more than 1,300 public and private schools listed fell below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended 95% immunization rate among kindergarteners.
In neighboring New York, medical organizations and county health officials on Monday called for eliminating that state’s religious exemptions for vaccines and allowing only medical exemptions. Most of the nation’s 764 reported cases of measles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been in New York. Health officials there say the majority of its cases have occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and nearby Rockland County.
Connecticut has had three confirmed cases of measles, including one tied to New York.
Last week, the Maine state Senate moved to end philosophical exemptions to vaccines but stopped short of ending religious exemptions. The bill still awaits further legislative action. And last month, California’s Senate Health Committee approved a proposal to give state public health officials, instead of doctors, the power to decide which children can skip their shots before attending school.
Meanwhile, the Colorado legislature last week abandoned efforts to make it harder for parents to option their children out of vaccines. The bill had drawn big crowds of vaccination opponents to the state Capitol.
In Connecticut, parents’ rights groups, socially conservative groups and dozens of Republican lawmakers have balked at the discussion of rolling back the stateeligious exemption. Angry parents have appeared at the Capitol for weeks, making it clear to legislators they believe their rights are at risk.
“They want to stop people who they think are abusing the religious exemption and that is incorrect. The government has zero right to ask you what your religion is or for you to explain it,” said Shannon Gamache, of Ashford, in a recent interview. She chose not to have her son fully vaccinated after he experienced what she believes were adverse side effects from a vaccine.
All 50 states have laws requiring students to have certain vaccinations. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all but Mississippi, West Virginia and California grant religious exemptions. As of Jan. 30, the conference said 17 states allowed people to exempt their children for personal, moral or other philosophical beliefs.


Texas officer charged with murder, resigns after shooting

Updated 15 October 2019

Texas officer charged with murder, resigns after shooting

  • Jefferson was staying up late, playing video games with her nephew, when she was killed, according to the family's attorney

FORT WORTH, TEXAS: A white Fort Worth police officer who shot and killed a black woman through a back window of her home while responding to a call about an open front door was charged with murder on Monday after resigning from the force.
Aaron Dean, 34, was booked into jail on a murder charge Monday afternoon. The police chief said earlier in the day that he acted without justification and would have been fired if he didn't quit.
Police bodycam video showed Dean approaching the door of the home where Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was caring for her 8-year-old nephew early Saturday. He then walked around the side of the house, pushed through a gate into the fenced-off backyard and fired through the glass a split-second after shouting at Jefferson to show her hands.
Dean was not heard identifying himself as police on the video, and Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said there was no sign Dean or the other officer who responded even knocked on the front door.
"Nobody looked at this video and said that there's any doubt that this officer acted inappropriately," Kraus said.
Earlier in the day, Jefferson's family had demanded that Dean, a member of the force for 1½ years, be fired and arrested.
"Why this man is not in handcuffs is a source of continued agitation for this family and for this community," family attorney Lee Merritt said.
Police went to Jefferson's home about 2:25 a.m. after a neighbor called a non-emergency line to report a door ajar. In a statement over the weekend, the department said officers saw someone near a window inside the home and that one of them drew his gun and fired after "perceiving a threat."
The video showed Dean shouting, "Put your hands up! Show me your hands!" and immediately firing.
Jefferson was staying up late, playing video games with her nephew, when she was killed, according to the family's attorney.
As for what, exactly, led Dean to open fire, the police chief said: "I cannot make sense of why she had to lose her life." The chief said Dean resigned without talking to internal affairs investigators.
The video included images of a gun inside a bedroom. Kraus said he did not know whether Jefferson was holding the weapon. But he said the mere fact she had a gun shouldn't be considered unusual in Texas.
"We're homeowners in Texas," the police chief said. "Most of us, if we thought we had somebody outside our house that shouldn't be and we had access to a firearm, we would be acting very similarly to how she was acting." Kraus said that, in hindsight, releasing the images of the weapon was "a bad thing to do."
Mayor Betsy Price called the gun "irrelevant."
"Atatiana was in her own home, caring for her 8-year-old nephew. She was a victim," Price said.
Texas has had a "castle doctrine" law on the books since 2007 that gives people a stronger legal defense to use deadly force in their homes. The law was backed at the time by the National Rifle Association and is similar to "stand your ground" measures across the U.S. that say a person has no duty to retreat from an intruder.
Fort Worth is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Dallas, where another high-profile police shooting occurred last year.
In that case, white Dallas officer Amber Guyger shot and killed her black neighbor Botham Jean inside his own apartment after Guyger said she mistook his place for her own. Guyger, 31, was sentenced this month to 10 years in prison.
A large crowd gathered outside Jefferson's home Sunday night for a vigil after demonstrations briefly stopped traffic on Interstate 35. A single bullet hole was visible in the window of the single-story, freshly painted purple home, and floral tributes and stuffed animals piled up in the street.
The police chief said Dean could face state charges and that he had submitted a case to the FBI to review for possible federal civil rights charges.
Dean has not yet hired an attorney but will have one provided with financial support from the state's largest police union, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, according to Charley Wilkison, executive director.
Relations with the public have been strained after other recent Fort Worth police shootings. In June, the department released footage of officers killing a man who ignored repeated orders to drop his handgun. He was the fourth person Fort Worth police had fired upon in 10 days.
Of the nine officer-involved shootings so far this year in Fort Worth, five targeted African Americans and six resulted in death, according to department data.
Nearly two-thirds of the department's 1,100 officers are white, just over 20% are Hispanic, and about 10% are black. The city of nearly 900,000 people is about 40% white, 35% Hispanic and 19% black.
Calling the shooting "a pivotal moment in our city," the mayor said she was ordering a top-to-bottom review of the police force and vowed to "rebuild a sense of trust within the city and with our police department."
Jefferson was a 2014 graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans and earned a bachelor's degree in biology. She was working in pharmaceutical equipment sales and was considering going to medical school, according to the family's lawyer.