Protesters declare victory after NJ bill to end religious exemptions for vaccines fails
Thousands of protesters declared victory Monday, as lawmakers scuttled a planned vote on a compromise bill that would have ended the ability for parents in New Jersey to avoid vaccinating their children based on religious beliefs.
For public health advocates, failure to pass the bill to tighten vaccine requirements means lawmakers must start over in the next legislative session, which begins Tuesday. The stakes are significant, as measles cases in the United States hit a 27-year high last year and the number of children without vaccine protection climbed.
For vaccine opponents, who for several days have thundered their disapproval in some of Trenton's noisiest and most crowded demonstrations, killing the bill capped months of organizing and galvanizing a national movement. Protesters in the chamber started screaming and cheering when the Senate session ended without a vote.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the lawmakers would reintroduce the bill Tuesday and restart the entire process.
“We’re ready to go to war with this,” Sweeney said Monday. “We’re going to start attacking this issue a hell of a lot different. We’re going to attack it with medical experts and putting the facts out and taking them head on with their challenges, because the statements that they make are absolutely untrue. We will pass this bill.”
Protesters outside the Statehouse had drowned out action inside the Senate with chants of “please vote no,” “kill the bill” and “we will vote you out,” as car horns blared and whistles and microphones added to the mix.
At the center of the debate is a measure to require all children in public schools and day care centers, as well as public colleges and universities, to be vaccinated against certain diseases unless a doctor signs a state form granting a medical exemption. Objections for religious reasons, currently claimed for about 7,300 public-school children from prekindergarten through sixth grade, would end.
Private schools, however, would be allowed to admit unvaccinated children, under an amendment crafted Thursday in the Senate to secure passage of the measure with a yes vote from Republican Sen. Declan O'Scanlon.
This compromise would require parents who enroll a child in private school to acknowledge that they have been informed of the school's vaccine policy, and the school to post its vaccination rate at each school entrance.
“This isn’t victory or defeat — this is the next step in democracy, and the folks that opposed this deserve credit for putting together a pretty amazing grassroots effort," O'Scanlon said. "But now what comes next? Do we bury our heads in the sand and hope that the resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases just goes away? That’s probably not a wise move. I’ve done all I could to bring both sides together and overcome the negativity.”
Anti-vaccination protesters stand outside of the New Jersey State House as the Assembly passes a bill to limit vaccine religious exemptions on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Trenton. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com)
“We’re either going to get it done now or we’re going to get it done in the next session," Sweeney said Thursday, "but by all means, this is getting done.
"It’s the right health care policy and it’s based on science — unlike what they’re chanting and saying," he said, referring to the vaccine protesters.
Opponents of mandatory vaccines, who say the bill would violate their constitutional right to practice religion, decried the amendments as making a bad bill worse. The revised version would discriminate against those with religious objections who can't afford private schools, said Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccine Choice.
"The wealthy can once again buy themselves out of a law at the expense of the rest of us," she said Friday, warning of unintended consequences from the last-minute rush to approval.
On Friday, opponents continued their high-pressure campaign that included telephone calls, tweets, and visits to lawmakers' offices. Organizations like Children's Health Defense, founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., urged activists to flock to "Occupy Trenton" as lawmakers vote, to "take a stand for medical rights."
A national vaccine scientist and advocate, Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, tweeted that he hoped "the NJ Legislature (and state legislatures in >40 US states) ... realize the potential harm and damage to children resulting from phony vaccine exemptions."
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The number of children with religious exemptions has climbed by more than 50% in New Jersey over the last five years, from 8,977 to 13,987, according to the state Department of Health. Current law requires that parents simply write a letter declaring that vaccination is against their religious beliefs.
Public health advocates say people who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons will be protected from diseases like measles, mumps, chickenpox, and whooping cough only by "herd immunity" — when a high percentage of the rest of the population has been vaccinated. Easy-to-get religious exemptions have created localized pockets where such diseases can spread and children are at risk, they say.
New York and Maine passed laws last year to eliminate religious exemptions, but Maine has scheduled a "veto referendum" on March 3 to give voters the opportunity to repeal that legislature's action. California, Mississippi and West Virginia already had barred religious exemptions.
Gov. Phil Murphy did not say whether would have signed the measure if it reached his desk. "We’ll make the decisions on any bill, including this one, based on science and facts and data," the governor said last week.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in the medical world affect the health of you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.