TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — 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.
For the third time in a month, the opponents homed in on the capitol complex and lobbed argument after argument at state lawmakers, including that their religious freedom was being violated by the measure. 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.
“They can stand outside and ring sirens and beat pots and believe what they want to believe but our responsibility is to protect the larger residents of the state of New Jersey, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Weinberg said.
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.
Sweeney promised to do that. He also said he would bring in medical doctors and other experts to respond to all the opponents’ concerns.
The legislation as initially written would have ended a religious exemption to vaccine requirements for children attending any school in the state, but lawmakers amended the bill last week to allow exemptions for pupils at private schools and for siblings of children who had vaccine-related injuries.
Despite the last-minute changes, opponents crowded the Statehouse, even arranging for portable toilets to be brought in. They circled the building, and their chanting was so loud that it made the proceedings in the Senate chamber difficult to hear.
“My choice, my God,” they chanted, along with signs that read: “I’m the parent. I call the shots” and “In God We Trust.”
The crowd also broke out into song and prayer, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Lord’s Prayer.
They argue that the measure infringes on their rights as parents to decide what’s best for their children. They also say they oppose the amended bill because it helps only wealthier families who can afford to send their kids to private schools.