The House Health Subcommittee killed a bill allowing exemptions for vaccines based on religious or conscientious objections, especially during pandemics. Lawmakers voted against the bill, 7-3. Committee members that voted against the bill were State Representatives Bob Freeman (D-Nashville), Darren Jernigan (D-Old Hickory), Sabi Kumar (R-Springfield), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville), Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta), and Robin Smith (R-Hixon); those for the bill were State Representatives Clark Boyd (R-Lebanon), Mark Hall (R-Cleveland), Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro).
Opposition to the bill focused on the possibility of its public health impact, citing the risk posed by non-vaccinated individuals in areas such as schools, daycares, and restaurants. State Representative Jay D. Reedy (R-Erin) had proposed the bill in November initially, several weeks after the general election. Its companion bill was filed shortly after by State Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), who didn’t respond for comment by press time.
During the hearing, Kumar revealed that the subcommittee was torn on the bill, not because they didn’t support religious liberties but because they didn’t want to put others in harm’s way. One of the more outspoken members on the subcommittee opposed to the bill was Smith. Smith stated that others, especially children, should have the right to be free from communicable diseases.
“[The] moment you touch another person, that’s assault. We have liberties that involve more than just one group of people. In looking at religions, there are only five religions that enforce and teach vaccine objections,” stated Smith. “And, interestingly enough, it seems that that population of religious adherence has grown significantly. Also, I have studied that the Charlotte Lozier Institute has found that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are not morally controversial because they’re not studied, tested, researched, or produced out of fetal cells.”
The proponent of the bill, Tennessee Stands Founder and Executive Director Gary Humble, dissented from Smith’s interpretation of public health. According to Humble, Smith misinterpreted the rights enshrined by the Constitution entirely.
“That’s the major sentiment. You watched Tennessee lawmakers clearly communicate what seems to be a conservative talking point now, but it’s a leftist talking point. [That] idea of public health supersedes our rights and liberties secured by our Constitution. You have this woman from Chattanooga, talking about what religions don’t adhere or do adhere to vaccines,” rebutted Humble. “The fact is that right of conscience goes all the way back even before our Founding, where our founders understood that they didn’t get to define religious belief. They understood that it was defined by our conscience. We have a free exercise of religion according to our conscience. That goes back to our Virginia Declaration of [Rights]. We were invoking Article 1, Section 3 of our Constitution that secures our religion beliefs by right of our conscience. Government doesn’t get two define what that is.”
Humble told The Star that the legislators’ treatment of the bill communicated that they want to keep their options open on requiring individuals to be vaccinated. He said that the entire ordeal was “sickening” to watch.
“This is a bill that had sixteen co-sponsors in the house, and thousands of calls and emails from Tennesseans across the state. And after all that we got three yes votes? That’s incredible,” stated Humble. “That communicates to me that this isn’t about representative government – this is about what [they] want to do and who is contributing to [their] campaign. That’s my interpretation. If this was actually representative government, then sixteen co-sponsors and thousands of phone calls and emails should’ve mattered more than three ‘yes’ votes in the committee.”
Members of the subcommittee aren’t entirely distant from the interests of healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. One of the bigger beneficiaries of their funding has been Smith. According to data culled from campaign contribution records and compiled by Tennessee Stands, over 30 percent of Smith’s entire history of campaign contributions come from Big Pharma and medical professionals. These top donors contributed three times as much collectively as the next contributor type, which includes Tennessee Medical Association, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), AbbVie, and Astellas Pharma.
However, Humble said that Tennesseans shouldn’t be deterred by this loss. He asserted that the Constitution still supports the people’s right of conscience, even if their legislature doesn’t.
“They had a clear agenda. Tennessee lost today,” said Humble. “If the legislature won’t do it for you, then you just say no. Government doesn’t get to continue to issue its own edicts. We want to see legislators defend the Constitution and defend our rights, but I don’t need you to do that for me – I’ll just look you in the eye and tell you no.”
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