Vaccine bills elevating individual rights are moving in legislature

Rep. Savannah Maddox (LRC photo)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Bills are moving in both chambers of the General Assembly to loosen immunization rules in Kentucky.
One would ban public entities from asking employees and applicants if they have received a Covid-19 vaccination, and would also ban colleges and universities from requiring students, staff or faculty members to disclose their immunization status. The other would would give a religious exception if any employer requires workers to be immunized against any disease.
House Bill 28, sponsored by libertarian Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge, defines a public entity as the state, a local government, or any of their agencies or departments.
It would also ban public entities from mandating or issuing vaccine passports, passes or other standardized documentations to certify immunization status to a third party for a purpose other than health care, and says such information cannot be published or shared for a purpose other than health care.
The bill originally applied to all employers. Maddox told the House that she was “personally aggrieved” that she had to take that out of the bill to get it moving.

“Its initial iteration was designed to ensure that every Kentuckian had the ability to decide for themselves whether or not to receive a vaccine without any type of undue force or coercion from the government, from their employer or from anyone,” Maddox said. She added later, “I believe that Kentuckians can make good decisions for themselves when it comes to their health care.”

HB 28 also allows parents or guardians of children in schools to opt them out of any Covid-19 vaccination requirements on the basis of a conscientiously held belief. Kentucky’s public schools do not require Covid-19 vaccinations.
Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, asked why that part of the bill is needed since existing law allows parents to exempt their child from any vaccine required during an epidemic based on conscientiously held beliefs. Maddox said that law pertains to executive mandates related to a state of emergency and applies to everyone, but her bill only pertains to school policies.
Sentate Bill 8, passed in 2020 without Gov. Andy Beshear’s signature, allows several exemptions for “any child or adult” who doesn’t want to receive a vaccine that the state mandates during an epidemic, including religious grounds, medical reasons or a “conscientiously held belief.”
Responding to a question from Rep. Pamela Stevenson, D-Louisville, about governments’ responsibility to protect the common good and their need for information to do that, Maddox said that while governments need to provide accurate information, it is not their responsibility to mandate vaccines.
She called words and phrases like “protection” or “the government’s role to keep people safe . . . euphemisms for forcing a needle into someone’s arm against their will. That’s what mandatory vaccination is.”
Rep. Jennifer Decker, R-Waddy, one of the bill’s 26 co-sponsors, said government employers who require employers to disclose their immunization status against their will are practicing government overreach and it is policymakers’ responsibility to “protect freedom in our society.”
“After a period of years now that all levels of government have exercised control over people who have longed to be free,” Decker said, “this bill is needed.”
Minority Caucus Chair Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, disagreed, saying, “I voted no for the good of the Commonwealth and for local government, the boards of education and the boards in our universities because they need to make those decisions for their students, their community.”
The Kentucky League of Cities opposed the bill, saying it violates home rule of local governments.
HB 28 passed the House on a 71-22 vote and awaits committee assignment in the Senate.
Sen. Rick Girdler (LRC photo)

The religious-exception bill for employees is Senate Bill 93, sponsored by Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset.

“This bill just says on my behalf that we have the right to reject a vaccination based upon our own freedom of religion,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Don’t need the church or anybody else. . . . I announced my faith in Jesus Christ wholly on my behalf, and so we will take your word, based upon this bill, that it’s against your religion.”
The original bill also had an exception for conscientious belief. The committee approved a substitute bill removing that portion. Also, it would put the religious exception in a different section of law to keep it from forming a newly protected class of religious protection, said Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris.
West noted that Kentucky already allows for medical and religious exceptions to government-required vaccinations, “so this just kind of follows what we already do there.”
The bill also provides that if an employer requires a vaccine, they must provide employees with a one-page sign-off sheet to inform employees of the allowable exceptions.
West noted that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that requires health-care workers to be vaccinated for Covid-19 but also allows religious exemptions. He said health-care employers must provide notice to their employees that this exemption exists and have them employees sign off on this notice.
“In my opinion, this is about personal, individual medical freedom,” West said. “The right to choose for yourself if you want to be vaccinated or not vaccinated. And it protects the rights of the individual. But it also provides a framework and some clear guidelines for employers if they want to do the mandate.”
The bill includes a list of health-care providers who would be allowed to provide a written opinion to allow a medical exception for employees, including advanced practice registered nurses, physicians, osteopaths, chiropractors, podiatrists, physician assistants, pharmacists and optometrists.
Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, a physician, objected to including some of those providers: “I just want to make sure that we do limit this to the health-care people who actually would have the knowledge to be able to make this decision.”
The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 8-1-1 vote on March 10 and is ready for floor action.
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