Lawmakers in New Jersey are set to vote Monday on a controversial bill that would eliminate religion as a reason not to vaccinate public schoolchildren.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the bill, said vaccinations are a public health issue and pointed to the fatal consequences of infectious disease in a statement to CNN.
“Everyone is entitled to express their opinions but we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all children, the people in their lives and in their communities,” she said.
“We will get this done because it is the right thing to do and I believe we have the support in the Senate to get this legislation approved on Monday with the exemption for private schools and day care centers that choose to allow unvaccinated students.”
The bill comes to a vote as an increasing number of parents in the United States are citing faith to avoid getting their children vaccinated, according to a new study — even though no major religion opposes vaccination.
According to the CDC, childhood vaccination is “essential because it helps provide immunity before children are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases.”
Final amendments to the bill were made Thursday on the state Senate floor before they were adopted in a 18-15 vote, said Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
The proposed bill includes an exemption for private schools and private day care centers, said McGrath. This would allow the private schools and centers to decide themselves if they want to accept non-vaccinated students as long as they disclose to all students their vaccinate rate in that particular school.
McGrath said Republican Senator Declan O’Scanlan was the deciding vote. In a Twitter post Thursday afternoon, O’Scanlan clarified that the amendments restrict the bill to public institutions, and that private ones still have a choice.
“There are other aspects but that’s the big one. I realize this isn’t a perfect solution. But it’s a balance that I think is fair,” he tweeted.
Some parents question the effectiveness of vaccines
A few thousand people gathered outside the New Jersey State House in Trenton on Thursday to protest the bill, Beata Savreski, a mother of three and opponent of the bill, told CNN.
Savreski, 40, hopes the bill won’t pass on Monday. Even with the exemption she doesn’t see it as fair or even as a compromise, she said.
“I’m against taking all the control out of parents’ hands and putting it in the government’s hands,” Savreski said. “I grew up in communism. This is worse than communism.”
Assemblyman Jamel Holley also has expressed his opposition to the bill.
“I’ve been totally against this bill from day one and now I am even more compelled to oppose. This includes bringing along my fellow Members of the Assembly to vote against this discriminatory, unconstitutional, and an over reach of government,” he wrote Saturday in a post on his verified Facebook page.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office declined to comment, citing the pending legislation.
“Job number one for me has been and will continue to be the safety, security and health of all 9 million folks in New Jersey, including especially our vulnerable communities and even, as if not more, our kids,” he said last week on his monthly radio call-in show on WBGO.
The governor added he will make decisions on any bill based on science, facts and data.
Dr. Sean O’Leary, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, said all non-medical exceptions to vaccines should be eliminated and that the benefits outweigh the risks.
“From a scientific standpoint the benefits of vaccine can’t be understated,” he said. “Every year the US childhood vaccination program saves 42,000 lives. For every dollar you spend on vaccine, you save $10 on societal cost.”
He defined societal cost as the direct cost of the disease plus the indirect costs like missed school and work.
O’Leary said most parents who opt out of vaccinating their children and use the religion exception actually have a personal-belief objection rather than a religious one.
“All the world’s major religions are strongly supportive of vaccination because vaccination saves lives and protects children,” he said.
A small fraction of New Jersey students have used the exemption
According to a chart on New Jersey’s state website, 2.3% of kindergarteners and 1.7% of sixth-graders used the religious exemption in the 2018-2019 school year.
The New Jersey Department of Education declined to comment.
The bill is expected to pass, but some lawmakers still have concerns about its contents. A spokesman for Senator Joseph Lagana told CNN, “Senator Lagana takes this issue very seriously. While he and his wife have opted to vaccinate their children, he has concerns with the proposal to completely remove a process for religious exemptions.”
Voting on the bill will take place Monday in both the Senate and Assembly, McGrath said. If the bill doesn’t pass on Monday, it would be put off until the next legislative session, which begins on Tuesday.