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Religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations could end in New Jersey

New Jersey may be poised to get rid of religious exemptions for vaccines.

A vial containing the MMR vaccine is loaded into a syringe.
A vial containing the MMR vaccine is loaded into a syringe.Read moreMel Melcon / MCT

Controversial legislation that could do away with New Jersey’s religious exemption for vaccinating children is scheduled for a state Senate vote Monday.

In a hearing that drew hundreds of parents opposed to the bill as well as public health advocates who support it, the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee voted by 6-4 on Thursday to move the bill out of committee, freeing it for a vote by the full body.

Sources in state government said the Assembly may also vote on its version of the bill Monday. But the measure was not listed on the legislative calendar as of early Friday afternoon. If a single bill is approved and the governor signs it, New Jersey schoolchildren could be excused from vaccinations only for medical reasons.

The vast majority of states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, allow families to opt out of vaccinating their children due to religion-based objections, though leaders of the major religions say children should be vaccinated.

Gold-standard health research has never found that today’s vaccines cause harm, and health authorities support immunization as the safest and most effective way to prevent infectious diseases that once disabled and even killed many children. Yet recent years have seen a rise in vocal immunization opponents who believe vaccines pose health threats, or who object to the standard vaccine schedule.

» READ MORE: PA bill would require doctors to treat unvaccinated kids

Fifteen states, including Pennsylvania, have also allowed exemptions based on personal beliefs, which New Jersey does not permit. But a recent study by the New Jersey Hospital Association found that the number of New Jersey families claiming religious exemptions for their children rose 53% in the last five years.

The overwhelming majority of American schoolchildren are vaccinated. But the vaccine questioning comes at time of global and national outbreaks of measles, an illness that until recently was considered eradicated in the United States. So far this year, there have been 1,276 measles cases across 31 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 19 reported cases in New Jersey and 17 in Pennsylvania.

» READ MORE: Religious exemptions rise in states without personal belief exemptions

At Thursday’s hearing, opponents of mandated vaccination argued against the proposed bill, calling it an infringement their religious freedom.

Health advocates, however, say it is no such thing.

“It’s not a personal rights issues. It’s a public health issue,” said Michael Weinstein, director of the New Jersey Immunization Network.

The state hospital association also supports the legislation.

“NJHA’s mission is to improve the health of the people of New Jersey, and the evidence shows that vaccinations protect individuals — and the greater public — from preventable disease,” said association spokesperson Kerry McKean Kelly.

If the legislation is signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, it would go into effect in six months.