The House passed a bill prohibiting government-mandated vaccines for COVID-19 or any of its variants. As amended, the bill would also exempt PreK-12 students from having to receive the vaccine in order to attend any schools or child care facilities. It would also strike the law that makes it a Class C misdemeanor for anyone who refuses to be vaccinated or refuses to vaccinate someone under their care.
Furthermore, this bill would prohibit state government and agencies from mandating a person undergo medical treatment if they object based on religious grounds or their right of conscience. However, the bill wouldn’t protect college or university students enrolled in programs or fields of study involving healthcare professions such as medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy.
State Representative Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport) and State Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) sponsored the legislation.
During the final hearing on the House floor, Hulsey’s description of the amendments exempting certain individuals involved in health care from COVID-19 vaccine mandates implied that they were changes instigated by input from hospitals and higher education. His explanation prompted laughter.
“This bill says that state government, or local government, cannot force people to take the COVID-19 vaccine against their will,” explained Hulsey. “Now, the amendments say, ‘Well, yeah [the government] can, and here’s who they can do it to: 45 hospitals, and those employees in those 45 government-owned hospitals – they can be forced. And medical students in higher education, dental students, pharmacy students, and medical care students – they are also exempted out of this bill.'”
State Representative Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet) pointed out that individuals can’t be forced to take vaccines that have been approved for experimental use only under federal law, or Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).
“[Do these amendments] acknowledge that this is a vaccine that’s only been approved for experimental use, and that the federal government’s rules – their own rules – do state that no one, for any purpose, can be forced to take a vaccine that has been approved only for experimental use?”
Hulsey said that Lynn was correct, but that the amendments don’t address that issue. Rather, the amendments apply once the vaccine has been approved for standard use.
State Representative Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova) said that this bill gave the wrong message to Tennesseans, that it downplayed the impact of the pandemic.
Hulsey said that this bill prevents government from making public health the primary focus over constitutional rights.
“[R]ight now, the United States Constitution […] is the supreme law of the land, it’s the highest law,” defended Hulsey. “When you make public health the highest law, it sets aside the Constitution. Then it becomes all-inclusive, because it affects every area of your life and it’s unlimited. When that happens, and public health becomes the highest law, then the only competency left is in the state holding hands with the medical community.”
A similar argument was presented by State Representative Sabi “Doc” Kumar (R-Springfield). He argued that the bill could create negative attitudes toward vaccinations. He called the vaccine “God’s gift to science” and said people should honor that by not calling it “experimental treatment.”
Kumar still voted in favor of the bill.
“The bill doesn’t take up the efficacy of this vaccine at all – it has nothing to do with that. This bill just reinforces individual sovereignty over their own body,” explained Hulsey.
Kumar also said that he fears that this pandemic was the beginning of attempted biological warfare by foreign nations. Hulsey concurred.
State Representative Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar) said that this bill was dangerous. He said that people should be forced to take vaccines, because unvaccinated people could cause other people to die.
Hulsey reiterated that the bill doesn’t handle the vaccine’s efficacy – it just preserves the right of people to choose medical treatments.
State Representative Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) said he was in favor of the bill because it protects individual liberty – but said that it might not go far enough to protect individuals from corporations.
The bill passed 72 to 19, largely along party lines. Only two Democrats are on the record voting for the bill: State Representatives London Lamar (D-Memphis) and John Mark Windle (D-Livingston).
On final hearing of the bill, State Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) said that he would vote for the bill since it preserves individual’s choices over their bodies. He said that Democrats against the bill were being hypocritical, because they support the “my body, my choice” argument for abortion, but not for other medical treatments like vaccines. He added that many Black communities are fearful of the vaccine, and he said that the bill gives Black people an opportunity to say no to government.
Parkinson’s vote wasn’t recorded.
The Senate version of the bill passed out of committee at the end of last month, 8-1 with only Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) voting against it. It now awaits scheduling by the Senate Calendar Committee.
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