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Proposed Missouri vaccine mandate restrictions raise workers’ rights, religious belief debates

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Virus Outbreak US

Karen Martin receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic hosted by James River Church West Campus in conjunction with Jordan Valley Community Health Center in Springfield, Mo., in July 2021. 

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JEFFERSON CITY — A discussion of vaccine mandates and exemptions quickly fractured along political lines and kicked lawyers into gear during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon.

The committee heard testimony on six bills related to vaccine mandates and medical treatment requirements, in what is likely to become a continuing subject of debate as lawmakers meet in the third year of the pandemic.

The bills would legislate bans or limits on health requirements for public entities, employers, or any person or organization, with different stipulations but similar effects.

Advocates and opponents toiled over the difficulty of defining a belief, the role and rights of employers and employees, the nature of the state’s economic system, and broader philosophy and legalese for more than three hours, largely acknowledging room for adjustment in the legislation.

“Employees as well as employers have rights in this regard. How that’s defined, how that’s applied is basically what we’re talking about here,” said Rep. David Evans, committee chairman and a bill sponsor.

The bills that allow for vaccination mandates stipulate that employers must accept broader exemptions than the current federally required religious exceptions. These exemptions largely fall into arguably catch-all phrases like “conscientious objection” and “sincerely held beliefs,” sponsors said, in efforts to include beliefs that defy traditional understanding of religion.

“Quite frankly, a lot of employers don’t know how to apply (religious exemptions), and a lot of employees want to use it,” said Evans, R-West Plains. “The state clearly has a role in helping our businesses and helping our employees define what that means.”

Several sponsors made the case that accommodations could be made for employees that refused vaccination, citing telework options.

Evans’ bill would also allow employer mandates to be exempt from the bill’s limitations if employers could prove that limiting requirements would cause them “undue hardship.”

This hardship was the crux of much of the opposition to the bills.

Opponents largely represented health care organizations, arguing that safety in the workplace was a critical factor in the decision to impose health-related mandates, and chamber of commerce and other business representatives, largely arguing against the imposition of any government control, including both federal vaccine mandates and state mandate restrictions.

This free market argument against government intervention split Republicans in the room.

“An employer has an obligation to his employees to render them as fair and safe working environment as possible,” said Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, contending that individual employers are owed the autonomy to make such decisions themselves.

Two bills sponsored by Rep. Cyndi Buchheit-Courtwayone broad ban and one outlining exemptions — took altered approaches to mandate bans, specifically targeting vaccines or medical treatments that have not yet been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This would allow for mandates requiring the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination, which was fully approved in August 2021.

Buchheit-Courtway, R-Festus, acknowledged that the federal government already prohibited mandates for unapproved vaccines, but she, like many other sponsors, emphasized a perceived need to clarify rules in state law.

The bills that allow for mandates but require broad exemption options include worker’s compensation provisions making employers requiring vaccination liable for any adverse medical event related to the vaccination. Severe or persistent side effects from COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be extremely rare, according to the CDC.

Just over half of the state is vaccinated as the omicron surge continues, with far fewer having received boosters. In the St. Louis area, positivity rates are nearing 40% and COVID-19 hospitalizations are breaking records.

Another bill, HB 1713, sponsored by Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, also tackled a COVID-related issue, proposing a “Missouri Religious Freedom Protection Act.”

Under the bill, public officials would be prohibited from limiting religious gatherings or services except in cases where violence was being planned or committed or emergency evacuations. This would prevent religious entities from being subject to any future shutdown or quarantine orders.

The hearing also opened debate on a bill, HB 1897, to establish one or more nurseries in prisons for female inmates with newborns younger than 18 months. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville, which received support from pro-life and criminal justice advocates, would establish facilities run by the Department of Corrections. Nine other states have already set up similar programs.

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