Controversial Bill to Eliminate Religious Exemption for Vaccinations Set for Final Vote

Lilo H. Stainton | December 16, 2019 | Health Care
Passage of measure would mean better protection for public health in NJ, supporters say; opponents decry it as a violation of their freedom of choice
Credit: Willfried Wende/Pixabay
If approved, the measure would take effect in 180 days.

State lawmakers are poised to vote today on a controversial bill to require youngsters be fully vaccinated before attending public and private educational programs in New Jersey from preschool through college — unless a doctor has provided an exemption based on specific medical guidelines.

The legislation before the full Senate would eliminate the current religious exemption in an effort to raise overall immunization rates among students of all ages and better protect the public from diseases like measles, which has infected a growing number of people in New Jersey in recent years.

The measure — which the Senate health committee narrowly approved Thursday following a volatile, nearly three-hour hearing — must still pass the Assembly before Gov. Phil Murphy could sign it into law.

The legislation is supported by a wide range of physicians and other public health officials, including school nurses and education officials, many concerned that religious exemptions to vaccine requirements have increased roughly 50% in Garden State elementary and secondary schools over the last five years.

“Vaccine safety is settled science, there is no question about it,” Dr. Alan Weller, a New Brunswick-based pediatrician who leads the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, testified Thursday in favor of the measure, prompting howls from its opponents. “This bill is about safe schools.”

Lobbying against the measure

But some parents, religious leaders and other allies insist the bill would violate their freedom and force families to make an impossible choice between their moral or religious beliefs and their children’s education; these opponents packed the State House Thursday to lobby against the measure. They included a seven-year-old whose testimony included bible verses and who said the bill would force her from attending her beloved school and a 12-year-old boy who suggested it was like the discrimination he had read about in class.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), a dentist and longtime health committee member, said the issue was more about religious rights than public health. “It’s their right to be wrong, if they want to be wrong. And it’s their right, to follow their own conscience,” he said of parents who oppose the measure, before joining his fellow Republicans to vote against the bill.

While the bill passed along party lines, 6-4, with support from all the Democratic lawmakers — some of whom were swapped in for usual committee members who are less supportive of the measure — it is not just a partisan matter. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen), who is Orthodox Jewish, called the goal “laudable” but said the legislation would in fact have a “chilling effect” on the state’s ongoing efforts to protect religious freedom.

But supporters of the measure stressed that it does not technically force parents to vaccinate their children if they oppose the process — unless those kids are attending school programs. “This bill does not take away that freedom,” said Dr. Richard Roberts, a vaccine advocate who is at odds with other Orthodox Jewish residents in Lakewood as a result of his stance. ”But it does enforce that schools be a safe place for all children by making vaccines a requirement for attendance,” said Roberts, a former pharmaceutical executive.

Some 94.2% of grade school students — more than 500,000 in all — were vaccinated for the current academic year, according to state records, still above the 90% threshold experts say is needed to protect the public at large, including those who cannot be vaccinated because of their weakened immune systems. That’s down from 95.3% in 2013-2014, in large part because of the rise in religious exemptions, which have grown from 1.7% to 2.6% — to cover roughly 30,000 children — over that time. (Medical exemptions had hovered around 0.2% for years.)

‘Putting others at risk’

New Jersey law outlines an immunization protocol for babies and children that requires them to be vaccinated against more than a half-dozen diseases in order to attend licensed child care programs and preschool; by the time they begin grade school, they should have received nearly twice as many shots, including inoculations designed to protect them against measles, polio, tetanus and whooping cough, among others infections. Under the legislation, all college students would need a meningitis vaccine as well.

Sponsored by Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chairman, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the legislation has roots that date back nearly a decade. But while the initial version would have severely tightened the existing religious exemption, it was amended shortly before Thursday’s vote to align with an Assembly plan — championed by Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a doctor who chairs that health committee — which eliminated the religious option entirely.

“I understand parents’ passions, but they are putting others at risk” by not vaccinating their children, Vitale said after the hearing. “I hear them, but we speak for the vast majority” of families that support immunization, he added.

The Senate bill (S-2173) was also tweaked Thursday to include additional guidelines concerning  the medical exemption process. As now drafted, the legislation would codify language adopted by the state Department of Health earlier this year, calling for clinicians to adhere to regulations developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in making these decisions and requires them to use a specific DOH form in the process.

The amended proposal also gives county and local boards of health the ability to audit the doctors or nurse practitioners who provide students vaccine exemptions to ensure their decisions conform to the state law and federal guidelines. And it requires these exemptions to be kept on file as part of the state’s immunization database, so public health officials can track their use statewide and over time.

If approved, the measure would take effect in 180 days.