Amid raucous protest from hundreds of anti-vaccination advocates, state lawmakers in New Jersey have abandoned legislation to ban vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs.
The defeat came after a last-ditch effort to amend the beleaguered legislation, which ultimately generated new opposition.
S2173 would have prohibited parents from using religious beliefs as an excuse to get out of providing standard, life-saving immunizations for their children. Instead, only children with medical conditions that preclude a child from being vaccinated—as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—would be granted an exemption.
As originally written, S2173’s ban on religious exemptions would have applied to children attending all schools in the state—preschool through college, public and private—as well as those attending childcare centers.
But the bill met with intense protest from anti-vaccine advocates in the state, who gathered at the State House and disrupted legislative sessions. Last month, lawmakers postponed a vote on the measure amid deafening chants from protesters and waning support from Senators.
In an effort to revive the bill, its sponsors amended it to apply only to public schools. But, while gaining support from some Senators, they lost others.
War on health
Monmouth County Republican Declan O’Scanlon said he would vote “Yes” on the amended bill because it offered private schools and childcare centers the option to accept unvaccinated children, according to NJ Advance Media. But others saw the amendment as giving affluent families—who can better afford private childcare and schools—the choice not to vaccinate, while leaving lower-income families without such an option.
Moreover, infectious disease expert David Cennimo of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School worried that the public-only version of the bill could lead to higher rates of unvaccinated children in private schools where disease could easily spread. “You’re going to potentially cluster all these susceptible kids in the same place,” he told the Times.
While anti-vaccination protesters cheered the legislative defeat of S2173, the bill’s sponsors and proponents vowed to keep fighting, saying that they would immediately reintroduce a new version of the bill.
“We’re ready to go to war over this,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told reporters after Monday. “We will pass this bill. This is about public health. It’s about protecting people.”
According to state records, religious exemption in New Jersey rose to 2.6 percent in the 2018-2019 school year, up from 1.7 percent in the 2013-2014 term.
In 2019, the country saw the largest outbreak of vaccine-preventable measles cases since 1992, with 1,282 cases in 31 states. Prior to the introduction of measles vaccines in the 1960s, an estimated 3 to 4 million people in the US each year came down with the highly contagious viral illness, according to the CDC. This led to an estimated 400 to 500 deaths, 48,000 hospitalizations, and 1,000 cases of measles-associated encephalitis (swelling of the brain) each year.
California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia already have bans on religious-based vaccination exemptions.