The thousands of New Jersey students who are granted religious exemptions to avoid the state's mandatory immunizations for school are one step closer to losing that option.

Following more than two hours of testimony from concerned parents, religious leaders and medical professionals, a state Senate committee on Thursday advanced a measure that would make New Jersey the sixth state in the nation to eliminate religious exemptions to mandated vaccinations for school students.

"On balance, this is the best route we can take as a society," Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and a primary sponsor of the measure, told a packed room at the end of the legislative hearing. "I completely recognize your passion and your advocacy, your belief system, but in the end, I think as a matter of public health and public safety that I will vote in the affirmative to vote the bill out of committee."

According to the state, 94.2% of New Jersey students in the 2018-2019 school year met all immunization requirements. More than 31,000 students did not, including 13,987 who were granted religious exemptions.

Emelia Walls, a 7-year-old and one of those students, implored the panel to vote against the legislation, and indicated her and her family's opposition to vaccinations would not change should the bill become law.

"Not being allowed in school anymore would break my heart into a million pieces," the second-grader said. "We should have the right to stay in school without getting vaccinated. We have the right to do what we want with our own bodies."

Citing state data, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, told lawmakers that the share of New Jersey students who receive a religious exemption "do not represent a danger to public health."

"Most experts agree that herd immunity is achieved at 90 to 95%," Schaer said. "No county in our state drops below 90% full vaccination rate, which takes into account all medical and religious exemptions."

The legislative panel rotated speakers in a way that gave an equal amount of time to both those who oppose the legislation and those who support it. Dozens of people who signed up to testify were not given the chance due to time constraints.

Among the organizations that spoke on record in support of the measure were the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the New Jersey State School Nurses Association and the New Jersey Education Association.

"Everyone here has been talking about the health of the students, but one thing that we're not talking about is, we have faculty members, staff who work in schools who also have fragile, compromised immune systems, and they need that herd immunity just like students do," NJEA's Francine Pfeffer said.

Republican Sens. Mike Testa, Robert Singer, Kristin Corrado and Gerald Cardinale voted against the measure. Cardinale referred to the measure as a "hate crime" against those who have a religious belief or concern with vaccinations.

The proposed law is scheduled to receive a vote by the full Senate on Monday. A bill advanced by an Assembly panel in 2018 would have established stricter requirements in order to obtain a religious exemption. In January, the bill was revised to remove such exemptions entirely.

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