Future uncertain for bill that would eliminate religion as a reason not to vaccinate public schoolchildren

Anti-vaccination protesters stand outside the New Jersey State House on December 16, 2019, in Trenton.

New York (CNN)Lawmakers in New Jersey did not vote Monday, despite much anticipation, on a controversial bill that would eliminate religion as a reason not to vaccinate public schoolchildren, a spokesman for the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office, Kevin McArdle, told CNN.

"Any bill that isn't passed by both houses today dies," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the bill, released a statement shortly after the Senate session ended Monday evening.
    "As immunization rates drop and outbreaks of preventable disease rise, I'm disappointed we were not able to vote on this vital legislation. Anyone who has listened to the public health experts, doctors and industry professionals should have been able to see just how dangerous inaction will be, not only for the unvaccinated child, but their fellow students and ultimately, the entire community. Though I understand the passion of those opposed, fundamentally, this is not a personal choice and in society it is the duty of healthy members to work together to protect those who cannot protect themselves."
      She added, "While we were not able to get this done today, my colleagues and I are committed to passing this legislation, protecting our children and ensuring safer classrooms in the 2020-2021 session."
        The bill required Senate approval before moving to the Assembly and finally to the governor, but it did not have the necessary 21 votes, said Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney. That puts any further consideration of bill S-2173/A3813 off until the next legislative session, he said.
        The bill remains a divisive point as an increasing number of parents in the United States are citing faith to avoid getting their children vaccinated, according to a new study -- even though no major religion opposes vaccination.
          According to the CDC, childhood vaccination is "essential because it helps provide immunity before children are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases."
          Final amendments to the bill were made Thursday on the state Senate floor before they were adopted in a 18-15 vote, McGrath said.
          The proposed bill included an exemption for private schools and private day care centers, said McGrath. That would have allowed the private schools and centers to decide for themselves whether they wanted to accept non-vaccinated students as long as they disclosed to all students their vaccinated rate in that particular school.
          The future of the bill looked certain when Republican Sen. Declan O'Scanlon marked the deciding vote ahead of Monday's session, McGrath said. In a Twitter post Thursday afternoon, O'Scanlon clarified that the amendments restricted the bill to public institutions, and that private ones still had a choice.
          "There are other aspects but that's the big one. I realize this isn't a perfect solution. But it's a balance that I think is fair," he tweeted.

          Some parents question the effectiveness of vaccines

          A few thousand people gathered outside the New Jersey State House in Trenton on Thursday to protest the bill, Beata Savreski, a mother of three and opponent of the bill, told CNN.
          Savreski, 40, had hoped Monday's bill wouldn't pass. Even with the exemption she didn't see it as fair or even as a compromise, she said.
          "I'm against taking all the control out of parents' hands and putting it in the government's hands," Savreski said. "I grew up in communism. This is worse than communism."
          After Monday's session, Assemblyman Jamel Holley told CNN he was opposed to the bill from day one.
          "Today was a great victory here in New Jersey," he said. "Any time that government overreaches their abuse of power, infringing on the freedoms and rights of people, that is a win."
          He added, "In New Jersey today, we defeated a segregated bill in 2020 that would segregate our kids."
          The assemblyman said the amendments to the bill carved out wealthy citizens who can afford to send their children to private schools and bypass the almost mandatory immunization. "You create a level of segregation."
          New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's office declined to comment, citing the pending legislation.
          "Job No. 1 for me has been and will continue to be the safety, security and health of all 9 million folks in New Jersey, including especially our vulnerable communities and even, as if not more, our kids," he said last week on his monthly radio call-in show on WBGO.
          The governor added he will make decisions on any bill based on science, facts and data.
          Dr. Sean O'Leary, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, said all non-medical exceptions to vaccines should be eliminated and that the benefits outweigh the risks.
          "From a scientific standpoint the benefits of vaccine are difficult to overstate," he said. "Every year the US childhood vaccination program saves 42,000 lives. For every dollar you spend on vaccine, you save $10 on societal cost."
          He defined societal cost as the direct cost of the disease plus the indirect costs such as missed school and work.
          O'Leary said most parents who opt out of vaccinating their children and use the religion exception actually have a personal-belief objection rather than a religious one.
          "All the world's major religions are strongly supportive of vaccination because vaccination saves lives and protects children," he said.

          A fraction of New Jersey students have used the exemption

          According to a chart on New Jersey's state website, 2.3% of kindergarteners and 1.7% of sixth graders used the religious exemption in the 2018-2019 school year.
          The New Jersey Department of Education declined to comment.
          Some lawmakers haven't publicly shown support or opposition to the bill, yet they still have some concerns about its contents.
            A spokesman for Sen. Joseph Lagana told CNN, "Senator Lagana takes this issue very seriously. While he and his wife have opted to vaccinate their children, he has concerns with the proposal to completely remove a process for religious exemptions."
            Once the bill is reintroduced in the new session, which begins Tuesday, it would again have to go through the health committee before facing multiple other steps and committees in both houses, McArdle said. Both the Senate and Assembly would have to adopt the bill before the governor signs it into legislation.