The Tennessee Senate amended a bill prohibiting mandatory COVID-19 vaccines so that colleges and universities can still mandate it. The amendment came out of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
The Senate was scheduled to take their final vote on the bill Wednesday, but they opted to conform to the House version of the bill and issue the amendment instead. The decision to temporarily postpone the final vote came from State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) after lengthy, heated debate occurred over the bill on the Senate floor.
Originally, the bill was short and simple. It prohibited any law enforcement agencies or governmental entities to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. As The Tennessee Star reported last week, by the time the House amended the bill the mandate protections didn’t include hospital employees and health care students.
The amendments also prohibited government from mandating medical treatments if an individual refused based on religious or conscientious grounds. They also struck a law making it a Class C misdemeanor for refusing the vaccine or refusing to vaccinate someone under another’s care. Those amended provisions remained untouched by the Senate on Wednesday.
State Representative Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport) and State Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) are the sponsors on the legislation.
One other amendment attempted to remove the language “right of conscience” from the bill, thereby only making religious exemptions the acceptable grounds for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. State Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) introduced that amendment.
Bowling asked to table that amendment. She said it was unconstitutional based on Article I, § III of the Tennessee Constitution.
“It actually attacks the Tennessee Constitution, which gives the right of conscience along with the religious exemption. That is one of the same – they’re not two different things,” said Bowling. “That’s why I’m asking that [the amendment] not be made part of this bill.”
Briggs said he “didn’t want to be a skunk at the picnic,” and argued that constitutional rights didn’t apply to vaccine mandates because our rights have already been taken away by the COVID-19. He asserted that individuals should have a right to “freedom from fear” of catching the virus. That was a phrase coined by previous Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
“When we have a health crisis, our liberty is taken away to a large degree because we can’t do the things that we want to. Even our freedom, and particularly our freedom from fear, is taken away when we pass bills when we have a way to prevent a disease. And now we’re passing bills that says that […] we’re not going to allow [our citizens] to have the freedom from fear of catching a terrible disease,” said Briggs.
Quoting the Supreme Court, Briggs asserted that the judicial branch recognizes that constitutional rights must be restricted at times for the greater good.
In short, Briggs argued that the COVID-19 vaccine was of greater importance than the Constitution. He said that all the bills concerning COVID-19 in the present assembly only serve to “perpetuate” the virus.
The Senate took a voice vote to table the motion. Both “ayes” and “noes” were audible. It appeared that Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) hesitated before determining that the “ayes” confirmed a tabling of that amendment.
In support of the bill, State Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) said that the fact that primarily obese individuals are those hospitalized or killed from COVID-19 should reassure legislators mandates for all individuals are unnecessary.
“When  percent of the people that died with COVID were obese – we need to take that serious[ly],” said Niceley.
In opposition of the bill, State Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) argued that the state is still in the middle of a pandemic. Yarbro added that nobody is proposing to make the vaccine mandatory. He said the real problem is that there aren’t enough individuals vaccinated.
“We don’t know what COVID-19 looks like in a year. We don’t know what the variants are,” argued Yarbro.
Governor Bill Lee issued a contradictory statement yesterday. He announced that no new public health orders would be issued, and urged any remaining mask mandates to be lifted by Memorial Day weekend.
A widely available vaccine changes everything and it’s a new season in Tennessee. I am not renewing any public health orders because COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency in our state.
— Gov. Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) April 27, 2021
Rebuttal came from State Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), who said that individuals have plenty of data in front of them about the benefits and drawbacks of taking the COVID-19 vaccine. He said that legislators should give credit to individuals’ intelligence and honor their choices.
The Senate is scheduled to take its final vote on the bill on Thursday morning.
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