(CN) — Following seven days of debate, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law Wednesday night designed to challenge federal vaccine mandates.
As approved, House Bill 1002 prohibits the enforcement of federal Covid-19 vaccine mandates in the name of protecting individual rights. The law passed the Senate 20-6 and the House 20-7.
“Countless Wyoming citizens fear losing their livelihoods because they object to receiving a Covid‑19 vaccination for reasons of personal conscience, religious conviction or for medical reasons, including prior recovery or natural immunity from Covid‑19,” the state law proclaims.
Following President Joe Biden’s executive order, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced rules on Thursday requiring the 84 million people working at businesses with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or to undergo weekly Covid-19 tests.
Wyoming is also one of 19 states suing the federal government over the approaching December deadline for employees of federal contractors to complete vaccination.
Governor Mark Gordon has pledged to fight federal vaccine mandates in court.
"Thank you for your diligence in looking for ways that the state of Wyoming might counter improper federal intrusions into the affairs of our citizens, businesses and state," Gordon wrote in a letter to the Legislature.
To date, Covid-19 has killed 750,000 Americans, including 1,243 people in Wyoming. Public health professionals promote vaccination to prevent infection, hospitalization and death from complications of the novel coronavirus.
An October Household Pulse Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau named Wyoming the most vaccine-hesitant state in the nation, with an estimated one in four people expressing opposition to the vaccination. The top reasons given were lack of trust in government, lack of trust in the vaccine and concerns about side effects.
“There's a sense of individualism, of independence and of freedom that we associate with Wyoming and elsewhere in parts of the country, which basically means we don't like government telling us what to do,” Bruce Anderson, an associate professor at Western Wyoming Community College, said in an interview.
“Everybody wants to be able to make their individual choices, but I think one of the things we find is that no one truly can be free from the effects of a public health crisis,” Anderson added. “Your individual choices, or the consequences of them don't stay just with you, they have impacts on all kinds of people around you.”
The Wyoming Department of Health reports nearly 40% of the state’s population is currently fully vaccinated, including 49% of adults older than 18 and 70% of seniors older than 65. Vaccination rates across the largely rural state vary from a low of 22% in eastern Crook County to 76% in western Teton County.
A majority of Wyoming lawmakers echoed the desire to preserve individual and state’s rights against federal overreach.
"Vaccine effectiveness isn't in the bill. It isn't about whether masks are effective. The issue we're trying to solve here is everyone's constitutional right to choose," said Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, during debate. McKeown voted in favor of the bill.
While Wyoming lawmakers initially met on Oct. 24 to debate more 20 different bills in each chamber, only two bills remained on the final Wednesday: HB 1002 and House Bill 1001, which bars business owners from requiring employees to become vaccinated.
Both bills received staunch opposition from business leaders.
"Not one of our members has asked us to support HB 1001 or HB 1002,” Cindy DeLancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance told the Senate appropriations committee. “These bill drafts are bad for businesses, period. Let's be clear: a business never welcomes mandates ever, and to respond to a federal mandate with a state mandate doesn't solve anything.”
President Biden additionally ordered workers in health care facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid become vaccinated. With that including hospitals, dialysis facilities, and home health agencies, some lawmakers worried about those cost of losing federal funding.
"Can you imagine shutting down Medicaid and Medicare programs in the state of Wyoming? That just can't happen," said Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, who ultimately supporting the measure.
Other lawmakers were concerned the proposed legislation would simply fail when tested against the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“The courts have already ruled executive orders can have the rule of law,” said Cale Case, R-Fremont, who voted against the law. “It’s the force of law as interpreted by the Supreme Court, that’s where we’re at. That’s why I’ve stood up here so many times and asked if we should be considering a constitutional convention.”
With $4 million appropriated for legal defense, the Legislature is prepared to test its law, and the state’s right to oppose federal vaccine mandates, in court.
“It’s clear that under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution that Congress, and by implication federal agencies can pass laws or enact rules and regulations that states must comply with,” said Stephen Feldman, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming. “The federal law takes priority over state and local law pursuant to the Supremacy Clause.”
But Feldman also noted the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court may be lean more favorably to states' rights than in previous years.
“Things change because the politics of the justices on the Supreme Court change, and the Supreme Court is very conservative now,” Feldman explained.
The Wyoming Senate is made up of 28 Republicans and two Democrats. The House of Representatives holds 51 Republicans, seven Democrats, one Libertarian and one independent.
Democrats didn't just oppose the bill, they opposed hosting the entire special session, which they estimated cost taxpayers $25,000 each day.
“At the end of the day this is just a waste of money in a state that is grappling with serious budget shortfalls,” said Nina Hebert, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.