Vaccines: NJ Joins Natn’l Trend, Seeks Exemption Restriction
Health freedom-loving New Jerseyans are concerned by State Senator Loretta Weinberg’s Senate Bill No. 1759. Introduced this past March, Senator Weinberg’s bill is a bid to make the exercise of a vaccine religious exemption more difficult for New Jersey parents. If passed, this bill would require parents to state their religious beliefs to exempt their children from vaccines for school enrollment, something the current NJ exemption law doesn’t require.
The New Jersey bill would add New Jersey to a growing list of states that have recently passed laws restricting access to exemptions. Last year, Washington State – and this year, California – passed laws making medical doctors gatekeepers of non-medical exemptions. These laws don’t pass the common sense test, let alone formal legal scrutiny. States cannot lawfully put a doctor between a citizen and the exercise of their religious beliefs, which has nothing to do with medicine. The WA and CA laws are simply unconstitutional, in my opinion. Not that that matters to state legislatures. The practical reality is that legislatures can pass any law they have the votes for, Constitutional or not, since technically, laws are not “unconstitutional” unless and until a court later says they are. So, we need activists to challenge these laws in court.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey legislature appears to have approached the matter more carefully than the WA and CA legislatures. Their bill, on its face, does not appear to violate the Constitution. Federal courts have ruled that the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause allows states to scrutinize vaccine religious exemptions to determine if the exemptions are truly religious in nature and sincerely held. But there are some issues that raise serious concern nevertheless:
1. The law is not clear as to whether or not the exemptions will be scrutinized, and if so, by whom, perhaps leaving that up to the Commissioner of Health and Senior Services, which the law directs to “adopt rules and regulations to effectuate the purposes of this section.” Unless scrutiny is very carefully controlled, the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause may be invoked. That clause requires people similarly situated to be treated equally under the law. If individual schools or local health departments are tasked with scrutinizing religious exemption applicants’ beliefs, that could be problematic. Officials throughout a state simply could not scrutinize exemption applicants’ unique religious beliefs consistently with one another. Assessing religious beliefs for legal purposes is a complex task that, to do properly, would require extensive legal training and experience. If there was a centralized system for scrutiny, such a system might withstand 14th Amendment scrutiny, but would it be practical? Could one office process all exemption claims in a timely fashion? Would that office unwittingly cross First Amendment boundaries by rejecting some qualifying beliefs that the scrutinizer simply didn’t like or understand? This is probably why many states don’t require applicants to state their beliefs. Once the state enters that domain, they embark upon a Constitutional slippery slope that can quickly run afoul of both the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
2. By requiring all religious exemption applicants to state their beliefs, the state is effectively declaring that all parents are dishonest and untrustworthy, since the only legitimate purpose of requiring beliefs to be stated is to prevent disingenuous religious exemption claims. But is it appropriate to place restrictions on all of the state’s parents, the majority of whom are honest people, in order to prevent a small percentage of dishonest parents from acting inappropriately? Are parents in New Jersey guilty until proven innocent? Or, if the state actually believes that a significant number of parents are dishonestly exercising religious exemptions, doesn’t that raise serious red flags about the underlying policy itself? If the state is concerned that many parents may falsely claim to have religious objections to get the exemption, shouldn’t the state recognize those citizens’ concerns by expanding the exemption options to include a philosophical exemption, rather than going in exactly the opposite direction by restricting access to the religious exemption?
3. The practical reality is that by imposing the religious beliefs requirement, many who previously had religious exemptions will lose the exemption, and others who would have exercised the exemption may decide not to, or they may fail to meet the state’s new, more restrictive requirements and be rejected when they apply. The more savvy and affluent parents may recognize that there are legal pitfalls to avoid, and hire an attorney to help them secure the exemption. For those “unlucky” parents who can’t afford or find an attorney, or who fail to see the need for one (as one’s chances of rejection are generally much higher for those who approach exemptions on their own, where stating one’s religious beliefs is required), the state’s new beliefs requirement is, in practical effect, placing a financial burden on parents.
New Mexico recently changed its law requiring vaccine religious exemption applicants to state their religious beliefs. If passed, the New Jersey bill would add New Jersey to the growing list of states that now have this requirements such as New York, Illinois, North Carolina, and many others. The bottom line is that vaccine exemption rates are on the rise, and the pharmaceutical industry (along with its cronies in state and federal health agencies) are responding with increased propaganda and well-financed lobbying efforts designed to maximize vaccine distribution and profits.
The national trend of restricting access to vaccine exemptions will continue unless YOU take action to stop it. Get involved – join the NVIC’s Advocacy Portal to stay abreast of vaccine billS in your state and across the country, so you can act quickly, easily and promptly to vaccine bills. Visit myLegislative Projects page frequently, and join the Pandemic Response Project’s email list. We won’t win this war by sitting on the sidelines or wondering if anything we do really matters. The tide is already turning - the wrong way. It’s not too late, but it will be soon unless we organize and actNOW.
Attorney Alan Phillips, J.D. is a nationally recognized vaccine rights expert. He advises clients, activists and other attorneys around the U.S. on vaccine exemptions and legislative initiatives. Learn more atwww.vaccinerights.com, or email Alan directly at email@example.com.