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Texas Senate committee advances anti-vaccine mandate bill

Lawmakers consider a bill that would bar Texas businesses from enforcing vaccine mandates on individuals who claim an exemption.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Following Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s direction for the Legislature to bar vaccine mandates, a Texas Senate committee advanced such a bill Thursday. Senate Bill 51 seeks to prohibit state and local government entities from implementing Covid-19 vaccine mandates.

The bill would bar state and local governments from requiring an individual to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in order to be employed or obtain services. Senate Bill 51 directly prohibits elementary and secondary schools from requiring a child to have received a vaccine to attend school. Additionally, institutions of higher education, public and private, may not require a student to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to receive admission to the institution. 

An exception to the bill allows for vaccines to be mandatory for students who study in the “human or animal health profession.” The executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission can also require students receive a vaccine “in times of an emergency or epidemic.”

Senate Bill 51 does not only affect Texas students. The bill mandates all employers in the state to allow individuals to claim an exemption to a Covid-19 vaccine mandate “based on a medical condition or reasons of conscience, including a religious belief.” While businesses would still be able to mandate employees receive the vaccine, SB 51 makes it easier for an individual to claim an exemption and harder for employers to fight it. This section of the bill garnered the most attention during debate on both sides of those for and against it. 

Enforcement of the bill would be handled through existing workplace discrimination law. Essentially, if an individual files their exemption to a vaccine mandate and are not accommodated or if someone is treated negatively due to their vaccination status, that person may file a civil lawsuit against their employer, leading to reinstatement if they were relieved from their position, back-pay and forced to make accommodations.  

To be clear, the bill solely restricts the Covid-19 vaccine. Republican state Senator Bryan Hughes authored the bill and said that the goal is to “strike a balance” between the rights of businesses to require vaccination and individuals to refuse.

“When there is a conflict, we want individual rights and individuals making their decisions about their health, their medical care and the health and care of their families,” said Hughes.

Many of the people testifying in favor of the bill criticized the efficacy and legitimacy of the vaccine. Their support for SB 51 and objection to vaccine mandates centers around their belief that people are being forced to choose between taking “an experimental vaccine” and being employed and providing for their families. 

Jackie Schlegel, executive director with Texans for Vaccine Choice, told the committee, “allowing business to dictate vaccine requirements has already put many Texans in a situation where they merely have the illusion of choice, deciding between an undesired medical intervention or losing their livelihood.”  

One long-term critic of the vaccine and mandates was among the senators hearing testimony. Republican state Senator Bob Hall referred to the vaccine as misleading and dangerous, often citing debunked claims that thousands have died after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, many argued that it was a clear example of attempted government overreach.

Democratic state Senator Beverly Powell asked Hughes, “Is there any sense in which you have a thought that SB 51 might create a precedent of government overreach into privately owned businesses?”

Hughes responded by saying that they must be really careful when they further erode business rights when it comes to their employees, but that in the interest of protecting individuals, this action by the state is worth it.

“Seems to me that we are giving up any pretense of caring about the common good of our fellow man, I think this vaccine has protected millions of Americans and this feels like government overreach to me,” said Powell

Individuals testifying against the bill echoed the senator’s concerns over how this will affect business in the state. Lee Parsley, general council to Texans for Lawsuit Reform, said that his group is concerned about how adding discrimination regarding the Covid-19 vaccine to Texas law might adversely impact employers. 

“We believe frankly that most Texas employers would be troubled by the creation of a new exception to the employment-at-will doctrine,” said Parsley. “These kinds of employment laws create the ‘untouchable employee,’” opening the door for expensive litigation where an employee can assert they were wrongly fired.    

The Senate Committee on State Affairs public hearing on SB 51 comes days after Governor Abbott signed an executive order barring businesses from requiring employees and customers to be vaccinated. Abbott’s order comes as an act of defiance of the Biden administration and its plans to require businesses with at least 100 employees to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. 

In stark contrast to the Texas governor and Legislature’s work to prohibit vaccine mandates, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a mandate for students to get vaccinated earlier this month. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a citywide mandate for teachers in September and has since faced legal challenges

Abbott over the summer issued multiple executive orders that banned governmental entities from mandating individuals receive a Covid-19 vaccine or wear a mask. In defiance of his orders, many school districts in the state’s most populous counties required teachers and students to wear a face-covering when students returned for the fall semester. 

The San Antonio Independent School District created a policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 15, 2021. While the Senate State Affairs Committee was debating SB 51, the Texas Supreme Court issued a stay on that policy after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton request the policy be enjoined. 

Paxton said in a statement that he was pleased by the high court’s decision.

“This decision should serve as a reminder to all Texas school districts that they should be using their limited funds on educating children and equipping teachers, not defending unlawful vaccine mandates,” said Paxton. 

Just before advancing the bill to the full Senate, Republican state Senator Brian Birdwell read a prepared statement that described the tough position he feels the Legislature has been put in by the Biden administration and Governor Abbott. 

“The proposal before us here is a result of President Biden’s, I believe unconstitutional, use of executive power as well as the Governor’s short notice addition of this element under the later stages of the third called session, asking us to encroach upon the businesses of Texas. That is a terrible position in which to be placed,” said Birdwell. 

He, along with his Republican colleagues, voted in favor of the bill. Senate Bill 51 will now go before the full Senate where, if passed, will travel to the Texas House for further approval.

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