Vote on New Jersey bill to bar certain vaccine exemptions postponed

TRENTON, New Jersey (WABC) -- New Jersey lawmakers postponed an expected vote on a bill to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren saying they lacked the votes, and leading to raucous cheers from opponents who had encircled the Statehouse with flags, bullhorns and banners.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said late Monday that there was a lot of "misinformation" getting around, leading to lawmakers withholding support for the measure that had already passed in the Assembly.

Thousands of protesters converged on Trenton Monday for the third time in a month ahead of the vote by New Jersey state lawmakers on repealing the religious exemption for vaccines, with the fate of roughly 14,000 students hanging in the balance.

When it became clear that the bill would not get a vote, they cheered and applauded so loudly that it could be heard inside the Senate chamber.

A vote was initially planned in December but was tabled after Democratic lawmakers were unable to secure enough votes, and it was unclear if last-minute wrangling could procure the number needed for approval and save the bill.

The newfound hope for Democrats came when Republican Declan O'Scanlon agreed to support the measure after an amendment added last week would allow exemptions for pupils at private schools and for siblings of children who have had VAERS-compensated vaccine-related injuries.

However, this led to an outcry from some Democrats that the changes would allow for wealthier residents to avoid vaccination and disproportionately impact those who could not afford private school, leaving the fate of the bill up in the air.

Supporters say the bill is necessary to keep children safe and have criticized "misinformation and hysteria swirling" around the bill.

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

Opponents crowded the statehouse grounds with flags and banners, including some reading "My Child, My Choice," and even arranged 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.

Monday was the final meeting of the Legislature's current session, with a new one beginning Tuesday. That means any bill would have to be reintroduced and wind its way through the process yet again.

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.

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, and 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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
Copyright © 2020 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.