Vaccine Exemptions for Religious Reasons May Face Stricter Guidelines in N.J.
Yet, the resurgence of serious, preventable illnesses -- including whooping cough and meningitis -- is testament to the fact that even greater numbers are seeking exemption from vaccines for their children.
But parents who seek an exemption from vaccinations for their children based upon religious reasons would have to comply with stricter guidelines under a new bill that passed the New Jersey state Senate March 15, NJ.com reports.
The bill, approved by a vote of 6 to 1, would require parents to attest that vaccination requirements conflict with the student's "bona fide" religious practices or principles.
"By adding the words 'bona fide,' we certainly would be suggesting that you should not use the religious exemption just as an excuse,' " the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, tells NJ.com. "The overall aim of this bill is to get children immunized."
Like many states, New Jersey has seen a significant increase in the number of parents requesting religious exemption for their children. In fact, the numbers have more than doubled -- with 3,865 recorded during the 2010-11 school year, up from 1,644 in 2005-06, the news outlet reports.
In 2007, the New Jersey immunization rate for children dropped to 62 percent from 76 percent. This was the year New Jersey became the first state to mandate the flu vaccine for children ages 6 months to 59 months who attended preschool or day care, NJ.com reports.
In addition to influenza, New Jersey requires school children to be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, varicella (chicken pox), haemophilus influenzae B (HiB), hepatitis B, pneumonia and meningitis -- all serious illnesses that could be life-threatening.
Fran Gallagher, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells NJ.com many doctors report that parents claim religious exemption from vaccines, but then are selective about which ones their children don't receive.
"I think it has been abused to the point where it puts the public at risk," Gallagher tells the site.
Critics of the new bill claim it is unconstitutional because the government cannot legally rule on whether or not a person's beliefs are legitimate. They also are concerned the phrase "bona fide" would only cover those who belong to an organized, established religion, the news outlet reports.
"When you say 'bona fide,' it draws to mind that someone could challenge what is bona fide, what is not bona fide. And that is unconstitutional," New Jersey Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk tells NJ.com.
Vandervalk sponsored a bill, which was blocked in the state Senate last week, that would have allowed parents to exempt their children from vaccinations based simply on conscientious objection.
Weinberg says the New Jersey policy on religious exemptions would not change if the bill passes; it would simply require parents to demonstrate that their religious convictions are sincere, the news outlet reports.
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