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N.J. Assembly passes bill to bar religious exemption for vaccines; bill stalls in Senate

For hours, loud chants from opponents disrupted the state Senate session, with protesters shouting, “We do not consent,” and “In God we trust.”
Protesters opposed to a bill that would eliminate a religious exemption for vaccines for schoolchildren gather outside the New Jersey state Senate on Dec. 16, 2019, in Trenton, N.J.Mike Catalini / AP

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey's Assembly on Monday passed a measure to eliminate religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren, but the bill stalled in the state Senate as opponents shouted so loudly they drowned out the session.

The Democrat-led Assembly passed the bill 45-25, with six abstentions, but the Democrat-controlled state Senate postponed a vote because there weren't enough yes votes, according to the bill's sponsor and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

For hours on Monday, loud chants from opponents disrupted the state Senate session, with protesters shouting, “We do not consent,” and “In God we trust.”

Sweeney said he will post the bill for a vote again before the legislative session expires next month, but he downplayed the role the protests played in the decision to postpone a vote on the legislation.

“We're not done with it. They can cheer all they want,” he said. “It's the right policy decision.”

If signed into law, the measure would end religious exemptions to required immunizations for public and private school children as well as for child care centers.

If approved the bill would go to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's desk. His office declined to say what he would do with the bill.

New Jersey would join a handful of states, including New York and California, in doing away with the religious exemption, if the bill becomes law.

Every state requires some vaccines for students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but exemptions differ from state to state. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia allow for religious exemptions to immunizations, according to the conference.

The New Jersey bill gained traction this year, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has seen the greatest number of measles cases reported since 1992.

The measure preserves exemptions in cases where doctors can cite medical reasons to forgo vaccines.

Opponents argue that the measure infringes on their rights as parents to decide what's best for their children.

Lawmakers say the bill is necessary to keep children safe and have criticized “misinformation and hysteria swirling” around the bill.

“There is no exemption for drunk driving or wearing a seat belt; there should not be an exemption from a patently safe vaccine that, if not taken, puts the health and well-being of our children at risk,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said.