TRENTON — An Assembly panel Thursday advanced legislation that would make it tougher to obtain a religious exemption from mandatory immunizations, despite opposition from more than 300 people who were vociferously angry when it passed.
The bill, A3818, would require students, or their parents or guardians if they’re minors, to submit a notarized document explaining how getting a vaccine conflicts with their bona fide religious tenets or practices. General philosophical or moral objections wouldn’t suffice.
Hilary Bilkis, of Rockaway, said it’s shocking that her rights to practice her religion and faith are in jeopardy two generations after her grandparents fled Europe to avoid persecution for being Jewish.
“What human being has the right to judge if my religious beliefs are sincere? What will be the litmus test?” Bilkis said.
More than 60 opponents testified against the bill, mostly citing religious grounds, and around 270 more submitted slips noting their opposition but didn’t speak. The crowd filled the committee room and two overflow rooms.
“I do not believe that our government has the right to pass judgment on whether or not one’s religious practices are genuine,” said Brian Malloy of Red Bank. “Children are and should be entitled to a free and appropriate education regardless of their religious beliefs.”
Melissa Machado, of Parsippany, said students who are denied religious exemptions if the change is made would either be forcibly vaccinated or kicked out of school.
“With this bill, you’re asking us to prioritize either our children’s education or our children’s health care,” Machado said. “You’re asking us to turn away from our faith and trust the state of New Jersey instead.”
“We are not anti-science,” Macacho said. “We respect science. But we do not worship it.”
Many of the bill’s opponents erupted in anger at the end of the hours-long hearing when the bill advanced by a 7-3 vote. Democrats were generally supportive, though Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, voted no. Two Republicans voted no, but Assemblyman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, was for it.
As lawmakers voted for it, they were catcalled as cowards. An agitated group showed pictures of Assemblyman John Armato with his eyes closed, asserting that he slept through part of the hearing.
When the meeting was gaveled to a close, some hollered, “Sellouts!” – triggering more than five minutes of escalating emotion, in which people pointed angrily and took a few steps toward the committee side of the room, calling lawmakers traitors, shameful and various expletives.
The bill did have a half-dozen supporters from the public, including two who addressed the committee.
“We stand in total support of A3818,” said Michael Weinstein, director of the New Jersey Immunization Network. “We recognize the bill as a move to enhance and support public health and not as a restriction of the expression of religious belief but more so as a vehicle to rein in what I like to refer to as an exemption of convenience to bypass the mandated laws.”
“History and current practice shows us that vaccines are the most successful and cost-effective public health tool,” said Lisa Gulla, president of the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials, who was then interrupted by someone yelling ‘Bull!” and other murmurs of disagreement. She then picked up: “Available for preventing disease and death.”
The signed notarized document would also have to include a statement that the person’s religious tenet or practice isn’t solely an expression of a person’s concerns about the safety or efficacy of vaccines and that they understand the personal and public health risks and benefits of vaccination.
Schools – from preschool to college – would be prohibited from exempting students from mandatory immunizations unless the new rules are followed.
Last school year, there were 10,407 students enrolled in New Jersey schools that had religious exemptions to the state’s immunization requirements, or 2 percent of students.