With multiple COVID-19 vaccines now being distributed and administered across the Commonwealth of Virginia, a Republican state Senator is looking to revisit the topic of religious exemptions to immunizations when the General Assembly convenes for its regular session in ten days.
Senator Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) (pictured above) has introduced and pre-filed Senate Bill 1116, which would allow for a parent or guardian to object to the vaccination of a child on the grounds that immunization conflicts with their religious practices or tenets, even during an emergency declared by the state board of health.
Furthermore, the bill also says that the State Health Commissioner during a public health emergency relating to an epidemic of disease cannot require the immediate vaccination of people who object that the administration of a vaccine conflicts with religious tenets or practices.
In an interview with The Virginia Star, Peake said the legislation stemmed from worried constituents reaching out.
“I had a number of constituents who were concerned about the powers of the government and ordering vaccines during a so-called state of emergency declared by the governor,” Peake said. “And the proposals, especially for the pandemic were going through with the coronavirus, do not allow for religious exemptions and I had a number of people concerned about that.”
Under current Virginia law, the State Health Commissioner has the authority to mandate immediate immunizations during a public health crisis, such as COVID-19, if a vaccine is available to the public. The only current exemption is if administering the vaccine would be detrimental to someone’s health, which must be certified in writing by a physician licensed to practice medicine in Virginia.
The issue of a potential vaccine mandate and the need for a religious exemption all started when the State Health Commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver, said in an interview with a media outlet in late August that he would put a mandate in place for a COVID-19 vaccine if publicly available.
After those comments made headlines, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) backtracked by saying that Oliver was only expressing his personal opinion and not a policy stance. A couple days later, Governor Ralph Northam’s press secretary confirmed to The Star that Northam was not planning to issue a vaccine mandate.
In early December, VDH state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake told lawmakers during a virtual presentation to a House of Delegates committee that the department was not considering a mandate at that time because the vast majority of Virginians wanted to be vaccinated.
When asked about the bill’s chances of making it through the General Assembly, Peake said he hoped it would pass and maintained that the free exercise of religion is a First Amendment right and should still be allowed even during a pandemic.
Peake also said he plans to receive a COVID vaccination when it becomes available.
Nevertheless, the odds are stacked against SB 116. During the most recent special session, several similar bills relating to religious exemptions for vaccines were killed. The House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions killed two different bills from Republican Delegates.
Separately, Peake introduced a budget amendment that barred vaccination requirements and enforcement by state or local agencies, but it was ultimately rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
With Democrats still holding a majority in the House and Senate as well as nearly all signs pointing to the COVID vaccines not being mandated by Northam, it will be an uphill climb for Peake’s bill to make it out of the legislature.
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