Religion will remain a valid excuse for children to bypass vaccination laws in New Jersey — at least for now — after state lawmakers Monday failed a second time to muster enough support to pass a controversial bill that would have repealed the option that thousands of the state’s families used last year.
With hundreds of parents once again staging a high-decibel protest outside the Statehouse in Trenton, a planned vote on the latest version of the legislation was called off because leaders in the state Senate fell one vote short on the last day of New Jersey’s two-year legislative session.
But the bill’s Democratic sponsors vowed that the fight to repeal the religious exemption isn’t over. They said they will reintroduce the measure Tuesday, when a new legislative session begins at noon. The public hearing and voting process, however, will have to start over.
“We’re ready to go to war over this,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told reporters after Monday’s voting session at the Statehouse in Trenton. “We will pass this bill. This is about public health. It’s about protecting people.”
The decision to abandon the measure is a win for the thousands of vaccine-wary families who have flooded lawmakers’ office phone lines and protested loudly at the Statehouse four times since December.
The bill (S2173) would have eliminated religion as a recognized reason for parents to avoid getting their children the vaccinations required to attend day care and schools in New Jersey. It would also give the state Health Department the authority to define what would qualify as a medical exemption.
But opponents claimed the bill is a dangerous government overreach and would have usurped their rights as parents and violated their freedom of religious expression.
Hundreds gathered in the courtyards outside the Statehouse again Monday as the Senate huddled hours behind closed doors to debate the bill. They cheered wildly after the session ended around 6 p.m. without a vote on the measure.
“Thank you, God!” they chanted from the gallery above the Senate chamber.
Many hugged. “I’m speechless,” said several women leaving the building.