POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Lawmakers move to make religious vaccine exemptions tougher in NJ

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Angry parents yelled at Assembly Health Committee members, a 7-year-old shot the legislators the two-finger bird and lawmakers quickly made their way to the exits. This happened seconds after a majority voted to advance a bill that shrinks a loophole for religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations.

“It turns out my son was experiencing side effects encephalitis, brain swelling. My Joseph is now 18-years-old, 6’4,” 240 pounds, built like a football player but with an IQ of a small child,” cried parent April Calrow.

In a packed room, most speakers opposed the bill.

“My grandparents fled Europe to avoid behind harassed, persecuted and murdered because they’re of the Jewish faith. It’s shocking to me that two generations after my ancestors emigrated, my rights as a citizen to practice my religion and my faith are in jeopardy,” said parent Hilary Bilkis.

Others warned if the bill becomes law, it would be challenged as unconstitutional. It’s failed in other years, even though some supporters say too many children are exempt, endangering public health.

“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.

After the vote, the bill’s co-sponsor explained the bill would take the state back to the pre-Christie era requiring parents to get doctors to sign off with notarized letters to get exemptions.

“You can still get a religious exemption, you just sort of can’t make it up,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, chair of the Health Committee.

Another committee hearing, a joint Senate-Assembly committee, heard testimony on how to make schools in New Jersey safer.

“Certainly when we drop our children off at school, we never want to get a text or see, during a press clip, there’s a school on shutdown,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

“Parkland really struck a chord with all of us. We never want that to happen again in the United States, and we certainly don’t want it to happen here in New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt.

The acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet says the governor has added $66 million to the budget to secure schools.

“Through legislation and local district accomplishments incredible strides have been made to secure our schools,” he said.

Repollet says districts have conducted more than 800 unannounced drills in the last few years, raising lawmakers questions about creating panic and desensitizing students.

The Department of Education says it’s about safe schools.

“Only learning can take place in a safe and secure environment,” said Bob Bumpus, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education.

School administrators say the effort needs more money to secure and modernize campuses. Law enforcers insist they can’t prevent all active shooter cases, the unknown keeps them awake at night, and more children should have mental health assessments.

The Pediatric Psychiatry Collaborative started three years ago with more than 400 pediatricians screening 70,000 children’s mental health and referring 3,500 to care.

“These programs that identify these children early on are going to deflect that trajectory that that child might have been stewing with anger and with a whole list of other health issues,” said Ramon Solhkhah, chair of the Psychiatry Department at the Jersey Shore Medical Center.

The joint committee will take school safety testimony at two more hearings in Cherry Hill and Newark this month.

Among the other bills that advanced — moving the State Medical Examiner Office from the Department of Law and Public Safety to the Health Department. Another would expand the use of medical marijuana, and another would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections before the next general election.