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Strict Vaccine Law Stumbles in N.J. Legislature


By Sharon Otterman and 

The New Jersey Legislature, seemingly on the verge of passing one of the strictest vaccine laws in the nation on Monday, postponed a final vote on a bill that would have ended religious exemptions to vaccine requirements for students enrolled in any school or college, public or private.

The decision came amid raucous protests, with dozens of parents and children who oppose mandatory vaccines standing just outside the door to the State Senate stomping and chanting, “Do not touch my child!” Hundreds of other protesters shouted from outside the building.

After the State Assembly passed its version of the bill — 45 to 25, with six abstentions — on Monday afternoon, the bill moved to the Senate, where the vote had been expected to pass by a small margin. But as the evening wore on, lawmakers realized they did not have enough votes.

Cheers from anti-vaccination protesters erupted from the Senate chamber gallery just after 8 p.m. as lawmakers announced the vote would be postponed.

“They can cheer all they want. We’re not walking away from it,” Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney said about the jubilant roar in the chamber after the Senate adjourned without voting on the bill. He added, “It’s just remarkable how people are looking at this and not trusting the science on it at all. They’re trusting the internet.”

Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccine Choice, which rallied against the bill, was triumphant. “The parents of New Jersey had a victory today,” she said. “The Legislature stood with us.”

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Lawmakers can revive the bill in January, before the end of the legislative session on Jan. 13.

The hotly contested bill, which comes on the heels of a measles outbreak in the region this year, has been portrayed as a crucial public health measure by its supporters, who point to the overwhelming consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.

“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,” said the bill’s co-sponsors, Senators Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, and Joseph Vitale, a Democrat from Middlesex County, in a joint statement issued on Monday night. They vowed to not give up.

But a small, vocal group of opponents questions or dismisses the science, describing the legislation as an infringement on religious and personal rights.

In recent years, the rate of religious exemptions in New Jersey’s schools has been rising. In June, New York passed a similar law to end religious exemptions, but the New Jersey bill would go further by also ending exemptions at institutions of higher education.

New Jersey was looking to join five other states that only allow medical exemptions.

“States have a compelling interest in preventing disease and death,” New Jersey Assemblyman Herb Conaway, who is a practicing physician and chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said as he introduced the bill on Monday.

The bill in New Jersey was strongly opposed by thousands of anti-vaccine families from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, who have flooded the statehouse in recent days to express their objections.

They had won the support of many lawmakers, including the Republican Assembly minority leader, Jon Bramnick of Union County. In floor debate before the bill’s passage, Mr. Bramnick called the bill overly broad.

“To tell a doctor that they cannot use their ability, their expertise, to write an exemption handcuffs doctors,” he said, referring to language in the bill that also tightens the rules for granting medical exemptions.

Among those opposing the bill is the nation’s main ultra-Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, Agudath Israel of America, which is taking a more active role in fighting the measure in New Jersey than it did in New York.

New Jersey is home to the largest Orthodox yeshiva in the country, Beth Medrash Govoha, which is in Lakewood and has about 7,000 students.

While most Orthodox Jews vaccinate their children, many rabbinical authorities “are very concerned about this bill” because it mandates vaccines even in those cases where a rabbi may decide they are unwarranted, said Avi Schnall, the New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America.

Such a situation, he said, might arise in cases in which a family believes it has two children injured by vaccines, and is debating whether to vaccinate a third child. Most rabbis would rule that such a child should not be vaccinated, he said.

“There is a religious element to vaccines,” he said. “And for the state to eliminate the religious exemption, it sets a precedent, it begins a slippery slope. And it’s not a good place for the state to be telling people, ‘Well, we don’t consider this to be religious, so we are taking it away.’”

Most states do allow families to claim religious exemptions to mandated vaccinations, but that is changing. New Jersey would have joined New York, California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia as states requiring that all children enrolled in school be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason.

In New Jersey, some 94.2 percent of grade school students — more than 500,000 in all — were vaccinated in the 2018-19 school year, according to state records, a rate which meets the “herd immunity” threshold that many infectious disease authorities say is required to protect the population at large.

But that percentage represents a drop from the 95.3 percent in 2013-2014, in large part because of the rise in religious exemptions, which have grown to 2.6 percent from 1.7 percent over that period.

That trend has worried policymakers, because unvaccinated children tend to exist in clusters, enabling infectious diseases to take hold in those communities and posing a threat to those who cannot vaccinate for medical reasons, such as weak immune systems.

“This is about keeping our children healthy and our classrooms safe,” said Mr. Vitale. “We require vaccinations to protect those who, medically, cannot be vaccinated.”

Opponents to the bill have largely framed their objections as concerns about bodily autonomy and personal choice, as well as religious conviction.

Many of the hundreds of parents, several with young children in tow, who lined the halls of the State House in New Jersey in advance of the vote wore stickers that read, “My God. My body. My right.”

Mary Colleen Foley, 33, a middle-school teacher in Brick Township and a mother of two children, said she believed that unvaccinated children were healthier than those who were vaccinated.

“God wouldn’t give us anything that we can’t handle,” said Ms. Foley, who is Catholic.

She added: “These are our children. We need to make decisions for them.”

A 15-year-old boy, who identified himself only as Gavin, said he was concerned about being kicked out of his high school, in Passaic County, and barred from playing on the ice hockey team because he was unvaccinated.

“The most I’ve ever had is a cold,” said Gavin, who was accompanied by his mother.

In the days before the vote, anti-vaccine parents began flooding Facebook groups to learn about home schooling and what options might be available if they have to pull their children from school.

In New Jersey, home-schooled students are allowed to gather in small groups and would not fall under the vaccine requirement, said Megan Elizabeth Sedlacek, a home-schooling consultant, who goes professionally by the name Miss Megan.

Some vaccine-averse parents in New Jersey had also been considering moving out of the state.

“They are looking at the red states, hoping there will be less pressure,” Miss Megan said. “But the reality is, you can’t just keep hopping states.”

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