Vote On NJ Bill To Bar Certain Vaccine Exemptions Uncertain

Associated Press
January 13, 2020 - 6:54 pm
Vaccine Protest (AP)

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The prospects of a vote on legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren in New Jersey looked uncertain Monday, according to the bill's sponsor, as opponents crowded the Statehouse grounds with flags, bullhorns and banners.

The Democrat-led Assembly and Senate were expected to vote on the legislation during a marathon meeting before a new legislative session starts Tuesday, but one of the bill's sponsors, Democratic Sen. Joe Vitale, said he was unsure of the bill's fate because lawmakers were still trying to get enough supportive votes.

The legislation as initially written would have ended a religious exemption to vaccine requirements for children attending any school in the state, but lawmakers amended the bill last week to allow exemptions for pupils at private schools and for siblings of children who had vaccine-related injuries.

Despite the last-minute changes, opponents crowded the Statehouse complex for the third time in a month, even arranging for portable toilets to be brought in. They circled the building, and their chanting was so loud that it made the proceedings in the Senate chamber difficult to hear.

“My choice, my God,” they chanted, along with signs that read: “I'm the parent. I call the shots" and “In God We Trust.”

The crowd also broke out into song and prayer, including “The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Lord's Prayer.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who supports the bill, had previously said he would not be swayed by the protesters and vowed to pass the bill.

They argue that the measure infringes on their rights as parents to decide what's best for their children. They also say they oppose the amended bill because it helps only wealthier families who can afford to send their kids to private schools.

Lawmakers who support the bill say it is necessary to keep children safe amid recent outbreaks of some vaccine-preventable diseases. They have criticized “misinformation and hysteria swirling” around the bill.

If the bill becomes law, New Jersey would join five other states, including California and New York, to do away with a religious exemption.

Every state requires some vaccines for students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but exemptions vary by state. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia allow for religious exemptions to immunizations, according to the conference.

According to New Jersey's Health Department, there are about 14,000 students who had a religious exemption in 2018-2019. That's 2.6% of the total number of enrolled students.

It's unclear whether Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy would support or reject the measure. His office did not return a message seeking comment.

The bill gained traction last year amid a nationwide measles outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was the greatest number of measles cases reported since 1992; New Jersey was among the hardest-hit states.

Democrats will remain in control in the new session in Trenton, though they lost two Assembly seats and a Senate post in November's election. Both chambers must pass the bill Monday to send it to Murphy's desk.