Religious exemptions to New Jersey’s vaccine mandates will remain in place — for now — as lawmakers in the state Senate failed on Monday to muster the votes needed for final passage of a controversial bill meant to increase the number of children who are inoculated against specific communicable diseases.
The news prompted cheers, honking horns and some surprise from opponents of the bill who had surrounded the State House and packed its halls to protest the legislation they said infringed on their personal freedoms. But lawmakers pledged to continue their quest to increase vaccine compliance — and the protesters promised they’d return to Trenton when that occurs.
“This is a victory for religious and medical freedom,” said Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccine Choice.
Both the Senate and Assembly had planned to vote on the bill Monday — one of dozens on the agenda on the last full day of the two-year legislative session. But the Senate pulled the measure from its to-do list in the evening, following hours of behind-the-scenes wrangling to try and secure sufficient support.
While the Assembly passed a version of the bill last year, another vote was needed to square it with changes adopted in December. When the Senate was unable to pass the amended version, the Assembly also held off on taking action.
Compromises to gain backing for bill
As drafted, the legislation (S-2173) would have required that all children enrolled in public child care and school programs be fully vaccinated, unless they receive a specific medical exemption. It was amended last week to exclude private schools, which could adopt a policy to admit unvaccinated students, and siblings of children who previously had an adverse reaction to immunizations, as part of an effort to secure additional votes.
“As immunization rates drop and outbreaks of preventable disease rise, I’m disappointed we were not able to vote on this vital legislation. Anyone who has listened to the public health experts, doctors and industry professionals should have been able to see just how dangerous inaction will be, not only for the unvaccinated child, but their fellow students and ultimately, the entire community,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a lead sponsor of the bill.
“Though I understand the passion of those opposed, fundamentally, this is not a personal choice and in society it is the duty of healthy members to work together to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Weinberg added, noting that Democratic leadership is committed to passing the bill in the next legislative session. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) promised to reintroduce the measure today, when the new session starts.
“This bill, in its current or another form, will eventually pass both houses,” added Sen. Joseph Vitale Jr. (D-Middlesex), another lead sponsor who chairs the health committee. “Sound science that protects children and the rest of us will prevail. It must.”
If legislators succeed in getting the bill passed, New Jersey would become one of just a handful of states — including New York and California — to entirely outlaw religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. Under current law, children must receive more than a half-dozen inoculations to attend child-care programs and preschool and nearly twice as many by the time they reach grade school, unless their families present medical, religious or personal reasons why they should be exempted. (Murphy also signed into law Monday a measure that requires higher education students to be immunized against meningitis.)
State data for the past academic year indicates that more than 94% of grade school students have been inoculated according to those guidelines. Experts note at least 90% of a population needs to be inoculated to effectively prevent infectious diseases like mumps, measles and tuberculosis from spreading. Nearly 33,000 youngsters have received exemptions: Fewer than 1,200 (or 0.2%) obtained a medical opt-out; some 8,800 (1.6%) were still in the process of fulfilling all the requirements; and almost 14,000 (2.6%) were exempted for religious reasons.
The controversial legislation aimed to rein in New Jersey’s existing religious exemption, which has grown nearly 50% in the past five years. Public health officials fear that the growing number of unvaccinated children has fueled the recent measles outbreak, which infected nearly 1,300 nationwide, including 19 Garden State residents last year.
For some, a matter of personal freedom
But some parents and faith leaders who have passionately lobbied against the measure insist it would violate their personal freedoms and force them to pick between their moral or religious beliefs or their children’s education. Advocates for “vaccine choice” packed the State House during several voting sessions in December and returned Monday with a giant American flag, megaphones and placards that read “My God, My Choice,” “Vote No!” and “Kill the Bill.” They surrounded the Senate chambers for hours, intermittently reciting the Lord’s Prayer, honking car horns and chanting, “We will vote you out.”
“This is not all about politics,” said Sarah Lane, a pediatric optometrist aligned with the vaccine choice coalition. “This is personal for many, many people.”
Lane and other advocates concede their work is far from done; they want lawmakers to address broader questions they’ve raised about vaccine safety before expanding immunization requirements. “This issue is not going away,” she said. “But I think what’s been demonstrated here is that this is a complex topic that requires complex thinking.”
Collins, the coalition co-founder, agreed. “There is a lot of work to be done to formulate legislation that will truly improve public health. This bill would not have achieved that, and it would have stripped fundamental rights,” she said.