New Jersey state lawmakers on Monday, Jan. 13, failed to pass a bill (S2173) that would have eliminated religion as a recognized reason for parents to avoid getting their children the vaccinations required to attend day care and schools.

Hundreds of parents protested outside the Statehouse in Trenton as the Senate huddled for hours behind closed doors to debate the bill. They cheered after the session ended at around 6 p.m. without a vote on the measure. Leaders in the state Senate fell one vote short on the last day of New Jersey’s two-year legislative session.

“Thank you, God!” they chanted from the gallery above the Senate chamber.

Many hugged. “I’m speechless,” said several women leaving the building.

The bill’s Democratic sponsors, however, vowed that the fight to repeal the religious exemption isn’t over. They said they will reintroduce the measure on Tuesday, Jan. 14, when a new legislative session begins at noon. The public hearing and voting process, however, will have to start over.

“We will pass this bill. This is about public health. It’s about protecting people,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), told reporters after Monday’s voting session at the Statehouse in Trenton.

Opponents said the bill is a dangerous government overreach and would have usurped their rights as parents and violated their freedom of religious expression.

Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, said this was “a victory for both religious and medical freedoms” in the state.

“There is a lot of work to be done now to formulate legislation that will truly improve public health,” Collins said. “This bill would not have achieved that and would have stripped fundamental rights.”

Since 2008, state law has required parents only to write a letter to their school district saying vaccines violate their religious beliefs without specifying how. The relative ease of the request enabled nearly 14,000 New Jersey children to get the exemption in the last school year, according to state education data.

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