Vote set on bill to bar religious exemption for shots in NJ

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers are set to vote Monday on legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren, as opponents crowd the statehouse grounds with flags and banners, including some reading “My Child, My Choice."

The Democrat-led Assembly and Senate are expected to vote on the legislation during a marathon meeting with over a hundred bills being considered. It's the final meeting before a new legislative session starts Tuesday.

The legislation initially would have ended a religious exemption for vaccine requirements for school, but lawmakers amended the bill last week to allow exemptions for pupils at private schools and for siblings of children who had vaccine-related injuries.

Despite the last-minute changes, opponents crowded the statehouse complex for the third time in a month, even arranging for portable toilets to be brought in.

They argue that the measure infringes on their rights as parents to decide what's best for their children. They also say they oppose the amended bill because it helps only wealthier families who can afford to send their kids to private schools.

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

If the bill becomes law, New Jersey would join five other states, including California and New York, to do away with a religious exemption.

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

According to the state Health Department, there are about 14,000 students who had a religious exemption. That's 2.6% of the total number of enrolled students.

It's unclear whether Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy would support or reject the measure. His did not return a message seeking comment.

The bill gained traction last year amid a nationwide measles outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was the greatest number of measles cases reported since 1992; New Jersey was among the hardest-hit states.

Democrats will remain in control in the new session in Trenton, though they lost two Assembly seats and a state Senate post in November's election. Both chambers must pass the bill Monday to send it to Murphy's desk.


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