Those who are in favor of religious exemptions to vaccines that are otherwise mandatory before children attend school claim that the issue is about religious freedom.

That may be true in some cases, but there are growing signs that the religious exemption is being used as a backdoor by those who subscribe to the misguided belief that there is science behind the idea that vaccines are somehow harmful to children.

Science shows that vaccines are not only safe and effective but are among the most important medical advances in human history. Choosing not to vaccinate a child endangers the child and those around them. Too many unvaccinated people in one area pose a threat to public health, as communities across the United States have seen in recent weeks as cases of measles have appeared in numbers not seen since 1994. Much of the so-called "science" used by anti-vaxxers has been either discredited or debunked.

Keeping children vaccinated is, plain and simply, a public health issue. And while there's little doubt that parents who are leery of vaccines are devoted to their children's safety, it's important that the state not allow casual objections to solid science to create a public health threat.

Recent data released by the state Department of Public Health shows that more than 1,500 unvaccinated children entered kindergarten during the last school year and that the vast majority of them claimed religious, not medical, exemptions. That's up from 465 in 2003-2004.

This presents a clear public health threat. More than 100 public schools in Connecticut have vaccination rates that now fall below the recommended threshold for "herd immunity." In Stafford alone, there are three public schools where more than 10 percent of students have waivers.

There has not been an anti-vaccine religious uprising in Stafford to coincide with the exemptions. Many fear that people are abusing the religious exemption by citing it when opposition to vaccines is clearly one of personal choice masquerading as religious belief.

The bar for the religious exemption in Connecticut is very low. Parents or guardians simply have to check a box and sign a form that indicates that vaccinations are contrary to their religious beliefs.

At the very least, state legislators should raise the bar for religious exemptions. Many other states have gotten rid of them completely, and Attorney General William Tong earlier this month said the state is within its rights to remove the religious exemption all together.

At a legislative hearing on Monday, one advocate of the religious exemption claimed that belief in the value of vaccinations is a kind of religious faith in itself: "We do not share the belief in vaccination," LeeAnn Ducat told lawmakers. "I am secure in my faith and do not consent to participate in a forced religion ... my religious creed as defined by Connecticut statutes is my own, and I do not need to identify with any organized religion."

Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children may not be trying to hurt anyone — it may be more likely that they have a distrust of conventional science and are trying to protect their children.

But they should be equally leery of conspiracy theories that, while they may focus and amplify their own concerns, have no basis in fact. It doesn't make sense that all of the nation's pediatricians would be in on a scam.

Legitimate religious belief is one thing, but not all actions can be protected by the umbrella of religion. We as a society agree to regulate all sorts of behaviors that would put us all at risk, from enacting speed limits on highways to enforcing food quality standards and to requiring that children are vaccinated to deadly diseases before attending school.

Abuse of the religious exemption to vaccines must end in Connecticut, for everyone's safety.

The Hartford Courant