TRENTON — An ongoing measles outbreak in Ocean County, its second in seven months, may prompt the Legislature to act to tighten up New Jersey’s vaccination rules by eliminating religious exemptions.

The share of public school students that aren’t meeting immunization requirements has been slowly growing, amounting to 5.4 percent in 2017-18. The number of students with religious exemptions to vaccination rules increased by 38 percent over the last four years.

State Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, said he’s “working toward” a vote in May or June by the Senate health committee on a bill that would delete the religious exemption from requirements for immunizations in preschools, elementary and secondary schools and colleges.

“The issue is that there are some, but not all, that use the religious exception as really a personal objection. It’s not really a religious objection,” Vitale said.

The Assembly advanced a bill a year ago that would have established additional requirements to get a religious exemptions, then went a step further in January and changed the bill to remove the religious exemptions entirely.

The bill hasn’t been approved by the Assembly. Vitale said he thinks the next step would be consideration by the Senate Health Committee, which he chairs.

California, Mississippi and West Virginia only allow medical exemptions to vaccinations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey is among 30 states that allow religious exemptions, and another 17 states allow exemptions for religious and personal or philosophical beliefs.

Attention returns to the vaccine legislation amidst an ongoing outbreak that has included 13 confirmed measles cases, mostly in Ocean County. It follows an outbreak between October and January in which 33 cases were identified, again mostly in Ocean County.

“I think it regenerates everyone’s awareness of the importance of being vaccinated,” Vitale said. “I mean, look, I respect a person’s religious beliefs, but I don’t know that that trumps public safety and the well-being of children.”

It’s unclear if the bill will actually be scheduled for a committee vote. Loud protests broke out last April when the Assembly health committee advanced a version of the bill.

“It’s a big deal. People are really going to argue about the religious part, about freedom,” Vitale said.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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