Assembly Votes to End Religious Vaccination Exemption, but Senate Vote Is Canceled

After hours of loud protests at the State House, controversial legislation is not taken up in Senate

Amid furious outbursts from parents and other protestors who crammed into the State House, the state Assembly voted Monday afternoon to eliminate religious grounds as an exemption from rules requiring students to be vaccinated in order to attend classes at public and private schools in New Jersey.

By a largely party-line vote, the lower house approved the controversial bill which requires all children to obtain a full slate of vaccinations, unless they receive an exemption based on medical issues, as certified by a doctor.

However, a Senate vote, which had been expected later Monday, was canceled.

The protestors, who chanted and prayed, claimed the measure tramples their religious freedoms.

“Protect the First Amendment! Protect religious freedom!” they chanted.

As a crowd of opponents stood outside the State House by the Senate chamber and chanted “Kill the bill,” some protestors banged on the window.

“I would never do anything to hurt people that have issues,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat. “But it’s unfair to be characterizing this as that we’re doing something that’s wrong. We’re actually doing the right thing, which is protecting the health of this state.”

Sweeney: ‘We are not walking away from it’

Later, when talking to reporters about the decision not to hold the Senate vote, Sweeney said, “There is no science to back up the arguments these people are making. They are making things up.”

When asked whether the Senate would vote in January on the measure or whether it would be further delayed, he said, “The intention is to get it done as quickly as possible.”

“We are not walking away from it,” Sweeney said.

Action on the bill has come after a spike in measles cases in New Jersey this year, which raised concerns among lawmakers and health experts that the recent upward trend in religious exemptions could boost the risk of more outbreaks.

The percentage of families opting out of vaccinating their children for religious reasons had risen from 1.7% to 2.6% — or about 30,000 children.

Opponents said the bill strips parents of their freedom of choice.

“Ultimately, parents and people should be in charge of making those medical choices with consultation with their doctors,” said Dr. Sarah Lane of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice. “Government mandates for these types of interventions interfere with that relationship between the doctor and the patient to really make sound choices.”

Republican lawmakers also joined in the opposition.

‘An unconscionable choice’

“This bill forces parents to vaccinate their kids against their religious beliefs or they will have to take their children out of school,” said Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips of northern Bergen County. “That is an unconscionable choice.”

The bill says vaccinations must follow a state protocol that includes shots against measles, polio, whooping cough and tetanus, among other diseases.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says vaccinations need to hit 90% in order to offer so-called “herd protection.” Children whose immune systems are compromised depend on everyone else being vaccinated to be protected.

In New Jersey’s grade schools, the vaccination figure is currently over 94%, which is down a percent from prior years.

“It’s tragic that a child would die or suffer a grievous illness, by a disease or at the behest of a disease, which is preventable by a vaccine,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, the South Jersey Democrat who sponsored the bill.

The vote in the Assembly was 45 to 25, with six abstentions.

In a joint statement issued after their decision to hold the bill, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sen. Joe Vitale, sponsors of the legislation (S-2173), stated, “This legislation is nothing less than an important public safety measure and nothing more than a reasonable and effective way to protect against the spread of infectious diseases. These are vaccines that have been proven to be safe for the children who receive them and effective in protecting the health of others.

“We understand the passion and concern people have around this legislation, and we do not take our advocacy for it lightly. But we shouldn’t let emotion overcome responsible actions we can and should take to protect against infectious and possibly deadly diseases.”

They will not give up on their “efforts to do what we can to see that vaccines are used as broadly as needed and that the exposure and spread of infectious diseases is prevented,” their statement said.

Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated previously that he is leaning toward supporting the bill. If he signs it, it would take effect in six months.

Additional reporting by John Mooney.