N.J. lawmaker moves to make it tougher to opt out of school vaccinations

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, says his goal is to respect parents' religious objections but create stricter standards for exemptions.

(Taunya English/WHYY, file)

(Taunya English/WHYY, file)

Groups opposed to vaccination are not happy about a new bill that would make it harder for New Jersey parents to exempt their kids from mandatory school vaccinations based on religious grounds.

If the bill were to become law, parents would have to submit a notarized statement that explains how vaccines violate a tenet of their religion. They would also have to talk to a doctor about the benefits of vaccines and the risks of forgoing vaccination, among other requirements.

Some with sincere religious objections might struggle to explain that in writing, said Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice.

“If English is my second language, and I’m having difficulty putting down the right words to express what my beliefs are,” she said. “Can someone from the state come in and say, well you know what, your religious exemption is invalid?”

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Bill sponsor Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said his goal is to respect parents’ religious objections but create stricter standards for exemptions.

“This bill seeks to strike a balance between the legitimate religious exemptions that one might wish to exert, and the public interest,” said Conaway, a physician.

The numbers of students seeking exemptions for mandatory vaccinations has more than doubled in New Jersey since 2010. Now more than 9,000 kids are skipping their shots.

Collins maintained that the measure would infringe on religious freedom and also put a heavy burden on some families.

“It can affect those who have a lower socioeconomic status, and can be a real burden, an unfair burden to them — requiring notarization, requiring that you thoroughly explain what tenets of your religion are being violated,” she said.

Steve Calandrillo, who teaches law at the University of Washington, has written about states’ vaccine requirements. Even if the bill became law, he said, New Jersey’s policy would not be a strict as those of some other states.

“I think this bill is aimed at making it harder to opt out, obviously, but still is trying to allow for the genuine religious objections of parents to be held, but just trying to make sure that they are sincere,” he said.

In California, religious exemptions from vaccinations are no longer allowed. A measure like that would be easier to implement, Conaway said, but unfair to those with strong religious beliefs.

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