Immunization exemption bill clears Senate panel

Students could be exempt from a requirement to receive immunizations for religious reasons or certain circumstances under a bill passed in a Senate committee Monday. The bill is intended to tighten up the number of reasons for exemptions.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Services Committee approved bill S2625 by a vote of 5-1. According to the bill, the goal is to provide “a clear and consistent regulatory approach” in providing exemptions to students at any grade level from required immunizations, which are intended to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

Exemptions could be given for “bona fide tenets and practices,” but the bill states that “a general philosophical or moral objection to the vaccination is not sufficient for an exemption on religious grounds.”

That exemption could also be suspended during times of emergency, which is determined by the health commissioner, the bill states.

Students could also be exempt from receiving immunizations if a licensed medical professional provides a written statement saying that such immunizations are medically “contraindicated,” or inadvisable.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), of Teaneck, said there currently are different standards for different vaccines. The bill would put all the vaccines under one standard, she said. She added that based on a letter she received from the Office of Legislative Services that local health officials will not be given any additional authority over current state laws.

Before the vote, legislators discussed whether it was necessary to include the term “bona fide” in the bill.

Assemblywoman Charlotte Vanderwalk, (R-39), of Westwood,  who testified before the Senate committee, said the term “bona fide” should be taken out of the legislation, saying the term opens the door to legal challenges.

She added that many states provide “philosophical exemptions.”

Andrew Harris of the New Jersey Public Health Institute said there’s “clear evidence” that people are using the “religious exemptions” as just another excuse to not have a mandatory vaccination. By including “bona fide,” the state is clearly setting a standard, he said.

Sen. Ronald Rice, (D-28), of Newark, said “bona fide” is “a bad word” to use in the bill. He suggested putting language in the bill making it clear that local officials could not challenge one’s religious reasons.

Weinberg said an amendment was not necessary, adding that she consulted with the Office of Legislative Services about the legislation.

Sen. Sean Kean, (R-11), of Wall, who abstained, said that including “bona fide” in the legislation would set the bill up for “failure.”

Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination, was against the bill for similar reasons. She said the “bona fide” term “implies that there must be membership in an organized religious group,” which goes against the state Constitution and religious freedom in general.

“Asking parents to explain their religious beliefs opens the door for school officials to make judgments and determination as to religious beliefs,” she said. “This is clearly a mixing of church and state.”

Dawn Marie Addiego, (R-8), of Medford, suggested holding the bill, but ended up voting against it.

Fran Gallagher of the American Academy of Pediatrics testified in support of the bill, saying that in general parents who decide to not immunize their children make them “a point of entry to disease.”

“It really puts the public at risk,” she said.

Immunization exemption bill clears Senate panel