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State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge)

Vitale still backing bill to eliminate vaccine religious exemptions

Senate Health chairman hopes pandemic shifts more votes into ‘yes’ column

By Nikita Biryukov, December 09 2020 12:13 pm

State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) hasn’t abandoned a bill that would eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations, but the measure still doesn’t appear to have the support needed to pass a vote in the legislature’s upper chamber.

“Still happy to have this conversation with my colleagues. It’s just about getting enough votes to pass it,” Vitale told the New Jersey Globe. “So, we were a little short last time, and I know we eventually will pass the bill. It’s a matter of when, not if.”

The bill drew hundreds, perhaps thousands, of anti-vaxx protestors to the statehouse for days on end.

Those protracted demonstrations, which could be heard from within Senate and Assembly chambers and which choked the hallways beneath the capitol and its annex, were enough to scare off a handful of Democratic senators.

When the bill failed last December, the New Jersey Globe identified five senators — Joe Lagana (D-Paramus), Ronald Rice (D-Newark), Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) — who intended to vote against it on the floor.

Lagana’s opposition to the measure saw stripped of seats on the Senate Judiciary and Health committees. He also lost an undisclosed amount of leadership money used to supplement his staff budget.

Rice, Turner and Gill were considered immovable, though it’s not clear whether the pandemic has changed their thinking on the matter. Vitale, for one, hopes it has.

“This pandemic, hopefully, has firmly illustrated the importance of vaccines,” he said. “It’s not theoretical. It’s that we understand that if we didn’t have a vaccine for mumps or measles or polio that millions of Americans and people around the world would be disabled and sick.”

The measure wouldn’t require all New Jersey residents to receive those vaccines. It would only apply to school-aged children, and those with a medical reason barring vaccination would still be exempted.

It would, however, eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations that the bill’s backers said were abused by people who sought them because they disbelieved vaccine science and not because of any religious reason.

Vitale, the Senate Health Committee chairman, had no doubt those protestors would again descend on the capitol once the bill was posted, even if it was reintroduced amid the pandemic.

“They certainly would return,” he said.

But while such a protest would undoubtedly run the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus — elements of the anti-vaxx movement have engaged COVID denial — those concerns aren’t what’s holding up the bill.

“They should be certainly mindful of the social distancing and wearing masks, even if it’s an outdoor protest, but that’s not a factor,” Vitale said.

Still, such protests could see their effect blunted if the bill is introduced in the immediate future. Both the Senate and Assembly have moved their functions online to shield members and staff from COVID-19 as the state and country continue to report large amounts of new cases each day.

A protest at the statehouse, then, would find few eyes and ears, but it’s possible vaccine opponents could find other venues, like lawmakers’ legislative offices or homes, for their demonstrations.

But it’s not likely that would be enough to put Vitale off of his chosen path.

“They’re clear and firm in their position and I’m firm in mine,” he said. “And I think most New Jerseyans would agree with me that it should be required because most parents comply with the law and they understand why.”

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